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. ■