Embracing imperfection

Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons. (c.200AD)

We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We all know that. It is strange, then, that examples of imperfection should bring us surprise or distress, but they often do.

A car which goes phut on damp mornings, or a bus which never comes or a pop-up toaster which flings its contents onto the table can all send us into a simmering rage. We fume over mismatches between our hopes and reality.

With people it is not so different. We can become infuriated by lies, unreliability, a lack of interest or compassion, or leaving the top off a toothpaste tube. It seems we cannot help making unfavourable comparisons.

We often feel this most acutely with people we pair up with someone, as philosopher Alain de Botton says in his thought-provoking talk “Why We Marry the Wrong Person”.  Our capacity annoyance tends to rise in proportion with our expectations.

At its most extreme the disappointment can be between finding “the  perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning”, as de Botton puts it, and the imperfect being we inevitably end up with.

This is easy to understand on a rational level. The real problem is developing emotions which reflect it because most of us cannot find everyday consolation in passages of Kierkegaard.

Wabi-sabi tea bowl (1500s)

What to do?
A more effective route may be by altering our aesthetics, which help guide our feelings.

Most of us are surrounded by the aesthetics of perfection, through the images used in marketing, Hollywood films, sleek design and, more broadly, art and literature drawing on heroic classical models.

But other aesthetics are potentially more helpful in learning to appreciate reality as it is, instead of seeing it as a disappointing failed attempt at perfection.

Among them is the Japanese idea of “wabi-sabi”, loosely translated as “imperfect beauty”. In this tradition nothing can be said to be truly beautiful without some quirk.


It prefers asymmetry to perfect symmetry, which seldom appears nature. It celebrates blemishes, transience and plain construction. In the case of “kintsugi” pottery it highlights the beauty of repairs (pictured).

Something close is found in the West, only nobody has got round to naming it. We might cling jealously to our  favourite mug despite a chip or we might cherish a car despite misbehaviour.

Photography often celebrates impermanence, while antiquarians savour signs of age, like patina and wear. Part of the charm of the sculpture pictured above is arguably that one of Laocoön’s sons is missing a hand. 

With people too we can be a little wabi-sabi, valuing someone as a whole, including their weaknesses. We might also benefit from being valued this way too, including by ourselves.

Pursuing perfection is a reliable goal, but it is also a reliable source of disappointment. Wabi-sabi-like aesthetics can help us realise imperfection also has a beauty. ■

Weaving happiness into journalism

Happiness provides a rich source of inspiration for readers and writers alike, journalists among them.

Reposting on social media means we more often consume stories when off-balance and in isolation, sometimes without other stories to provide emotional counter-point. We should take care to manage the emotional impact of the stories we consume and those we deliver.

All this is likely to raise doubts over whether the results would count as serious journalism. After all serious journalism is meant to be hard-bitten, raw and cynical. When we think of something serious we tend to think of something sombre and edgy, while something happy is goofy. 

But happiness, as scientifically understood, is not about becoming a beaming emoticon. Happy people are not constantly elated. In fact they tend to experience an elaborate fabric of emotions, with plenty of negative and awkward feelings woven into a backcloth of positivity.

This makes sense even if we are not among the happy few. The things make us happy are often imperfect or visions of imperfection: following a football team, a holiday, a film or novel, a picture, a piece of music, a group of friends or family. All have a balance of high- and lowlights.

The way we tell our stories is something we can change to reflect this without ignoring nagging facts and uncertainties. Relentless confrontational, provocative or alarming angles are unsustainable. Readers will tire and begin to mistrust such monotone impressions.

We do not need to ignore conflicts, crises, uncertainties or tragedies. In fact we should not. We need to face them to improve our understanding and foster solutions. But we also need to be able to come to this understanding without undue unease, which may mean we close down our curiosity.

This, perhaps, does not describe the mental state of many journalists kept going on caffeine, alcohol and a passion for their work. There is romance and excitement to this approach, but being overstretched makes it harder to write stories with an open outlook.

Communication requires recognition of our own needs and adaptation to the other’s. Happiness is among them. With imagination and consideration journalism can be woven in.

For auld lang syne

Closing the bulging manila file on 2016 will be a relief to many. But, with the ink still damp on the tab marked “2017”, it is hard to avoid a nagging concern about what will fill it.

It is easy to be disheartened. But human affairs on every level are as prone to changing for the better as they are for the worse. This is, in part, because we as individuals and as a species are able to learn, value our advantages, avoid errors and find solutions.

The world as a whole still produces far more material resources than it needs and no end of untapped ideas. Democratic institutions generally function well, despite their missteps. Very few seriously contest their central role in the future.

The checks on democratic power can still minimise the cost of representatives’ errors, restraining moves which unjustly harm people’s interests. Votes cast in a bid to assuage negative feelings can be shifted to viable solutions through listening and persuasion.

We are not locked into an unalterable course as individuals or as societies. What we need are attractive alternatives. Their source is the recognition of common interests, alliances, goodwill and ingenuity. Their attractiveness will only increase if they benefit long chains of interests.

Working for such solutions is not a dreary task, coming with a unique payoff: happiness. Happiness comes, numerous studies find, from our feelings of connection, cooperation and capacity to rebound from mishap. Our buzz comes from building, not hoarding or demolition.

Our world of artificial division, knockabout debate and dented confidence offers fertile ground for initiatives, large and small, founded on more accurate analysis. We all have the chance to receive the rewards of contributing through our curiosity, thought, action and influence.

So, for auld lang syne, for old time’s sake, and for new, there is good reason to look forward to 2017. There is no certainty its opportunities will be taken, but they will certainly be there.

In praise of politeness

HandshakeIt is no coincidence simplistic movements are finding success when our worldviews and personal relations are being shaped by chaotic and often ill-tempered online interaction. Opportunistic rabble-rousers are only too happy to ride this wave of digital bombast. The answer is a counter-wave of online civility. Continue reading “In praise of politeness”

Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s

The Mezica cricket ground.
The cricket ground in Mezica, Slovenia.

MEZICA, Slovenia, summer 2013—The distinctive thwack of leather on willow is not the first thing you might expect to hear in a remote alpine valley in the former-Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. But it is almost 40 years since cricket was first played in Mezica, in the far north of  the country, making it the cradle of a growing regional cricket scene and enthusiastic host of international touring sides. Continue reading “Mezica: The Balkan Lord’s”

Alcohol, our faulty Facebook

alcohollogoThere was a social media giant in startup tens of thousands of years before Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter started vying for our attention: alcohol. Continue reading “Alcohol, our faulty Facebook”

Dedication, a benign addiction

Record Breakers - identAsk a Brit who grew up in the 70s or 80s what is needed to “be the best” or “beat the rest” and they are likely tell you, without much hesitation: dedication. Continue reading “Dedication, a benign addiction”

How to disable your Facebook feed

Turning off the tap

Processing the jumbled deluge of content on the typical Facebook feed can cause distraction, cognitive overload and intermittent alarm from its cack-handed delivery of serious news. But this formidable mental challenge is made tricky to avoid. Continue reading “How to disable your Facebook feed”

Curbing an appetite for distraction

Multitasking: fun and profitable
Multitasking: fun and profitable

Who does not like the rich melange that pours freely from social media? Hardly anyone I know of. I have gorged on it until I am round. It seems to be in our makeup to feast like this, but it is also in our interest to find ways to control our intake. Continue reading “Curbing an appetite for distraction”

Social media’s serious news problem

Terrorist attacks have been in the news ever since I remember news. If it wasn’t one group, it was another. Someone has bombed three of the cities I have lived in. I have visited a couple of disaster sites. But it was hearing about the Paris attacks on November 13th which delivered the biggest initial impact. It was more like the incongruity of coming upon a man lying on the grass in the sunshine outside my local supermarket and finding he had multiple stab wounds. Continue reading “Social media’s serious news problem”