Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Broken for You

     He could have been anyone, I thought: a businessman, a salesman, a computer whiz for hire. Any one of the young professionals you might encounter in the course of a day.
     The conference keynote speaker wore a dark suit; a white shirt; a neat, subdued tie. His thick brown hair parted cleanly away from a handsome, all-American face. He towered above the podium, and as he began to speak -- calmly, confidently – a few slides of a boy of five or six appeared on the wide screen behind him.
    The subject was child abuse, or more precisely, the healing journey after.  With hard-won equanimity, the young man on the stage recounted his victimization at the hands of a next-door neighbor and charted the efforts of the organization he directs to help other survivors.
     In truth, it wasn’t a speech I’d looked forward to hearing. In prior years, I had participated in this annual conference on violence, and after sharing my own past in breakout sessions, found it tough to take in any more pain.  But I was intrigued with this speaker, with the friendly though focused manner about him, his ability to both surprise and connect with the audience of some five hundred crime victims, advocates, and social workers.
     From him, I learned not only a few startling facts (one out of five boys suffers abuse; most sexual assaults in the military are committed upon males), but also a new word: kintsukuroi, a Japanese term that means to repair something with a gold or silver lacquer, and in doing so, to understand that the piece is more beautiful because it has been broken.  

   Of course, the speaker wasn’t discussing porcelain repair, but the mending of the spirit, of the soul. It was a concept that resonated with me; it underscored a segment in my own talk about embracing the totality of one’s life, even those tragic “broken” pieces, accepting each part of yourself and your past as a gift, something of a miracle.
     I jotted down the word and definition, as did the friend who sat to my left, and when I returned from the conference, I asked Don Bredes, novelist and, most recently, author of the Hector Bellevance suspense series, if he knew of an English equivalent.  He did not. “What's more,” he added, “I doubt there's even an equivalent concept in Western culture. Westerners understand how age and wear may impart a measure of beauty to all kinds of things, but my sense is that here, generally speaking, broken is broken, and broken is flawed; therefore, any evidence of a repair is best hidden or disguised.”
     Broken is broken.
     We hold this true of things, and even more so of ourselves, going to extremes to mask what’s broken inside and to fix what’s irregular on the outside, perhaps in part because of our culture. But also something more innate is at work: a symmetry of facial features and the body proportions that signal fertility register as profoundly beautiful to us deep in our psyches. As Denis Dutton, philosopher and author of “The Art Instinct,” suggested, we are “hardwired” to seek out beauty of all sorts.
     The French might applaud the odd and interesting qualities of the “jolie laide” -- as one critic put it, “the aesthetic pleasures of the visually off kilter” -- but it’s youth and perfection that win the highest acclaim everywhere. A stroll along the cosmetic corridor of any corner drugstore confirms this.  And how many of us who grew up with “character building” crooked teeth here in the land of plenty would allow our children to suffer the same fate?
     Then there are gashes and gaps within. While we might say, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” we don’t rush to equate inner strength with beauty. We acknowledge it in the extraordinary few, in others such as Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, though their appearance would win praise regardless.  When confronted with troubles beyond the expected, with emotional wounds that reach far below the surface, our first instinct might not be to strengthen and heal, but to adeptly conceal. We mistakenly assume a stoic façade is the equal of a more demanding amalgamation.
     Healing is hard work. It takes time and conscious effort. Quicker and easier to camouflage or to patch, as I have done in the past, with bitterness and a dose of nerve. To heal, to achieve something more lasting, more resilient and precious, takes, as  “Wayward Monk” Shozan Jack Haubner puts it, the desire to “turn suffering into love.”
    “We’re worth more broken,” a character asserts in Stephanie Kallos’s bestseller, “Broken for You,” a novel that explores how a shattered heart can heal, and at a pivotal point, describes the destruction of a great deal of costly porcelain. As a collector who takes delight in setting the holiday table with Rose Medallion China or hand-painted Bavarian pieces, I nearly shouted, “Oh, c’mon! Nobody would do that!”  But I’m reminded here of an aunt and uncle who, during arguments early in their 50-year marriage, seemed to toss a quite a bit of their wedding china at one another. Luckily, they were both bad shots.
     Kallos’s heroine turns the shards into glorious mosaics. My relatives probably just swept up the pieces and tossed them. But they fashioned a long and genuinely happy life together.
The ancient art of kintsukuroi is a worthy meditation. Whether we make a medley of our past and our imperfections, or are able to mend the breaks with a curative essence that both binds and illuminates the cracks, the key lies in embracing what is -- not hiding or obscuring, not cementing in haste, but accepting each part of the whole.
     The young man standing tall at the podium, who held out his hand to the image of the vulnerable boy with his back against the broad trunk of a tree, displayed another slide: one with his wife, the couple smiling broadly, dressed for a mountain hike under a bright sun.  He showed those of us at the conference that even the most grievous fissures can be joined with the precious metals of love and compassion, show not only to others, but to ourselves as well.  

 This "Big Crazy Life" column appeared in the July 2013 issue of  The North Star Monthly.  Visit the website:

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