Kintsugi and the mending of failure

Life tends to encourage success. We learn early that success brings approval. We get prizes at school, respect from our peers; we get applauded at home.

There is less appreciation when we fail or when something breaks us. Perhaps we’re called ‘loser’ or told to get our act together or compared unfavourably with others. Or at best, told to try again, do better this time.

The seasons of life can change. In our teens, 20s and 30s, there may be immense pressure to measure up to the expectations of society, our families and our friends, when we’re still seeking our own voice.

For some, their sense of meaning and existence is intimately tied to things going well, things going as planned; to achievement and to success.

And clearly these feelings can remain in middle-age and beyond and become regret for things not achieved; or for the way life has gone. As someone said to me recently, ‘This is a long way from what I hoped for.’

And regret strangles joy.

Life is difficult, this is normal – and our way may be strewn with shattered dreams that cannot now be mended. Or can they?

One way to reflect on a sense of failure or disappointment is through the Japanese art form of kintsugi, which means ‘Joining with gold’.

It has attracted much attention, as both an artistic technique and as metaphor for how we can live life.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery.

If a bowl is broken, rather than discarding the pieces, the fragments are put back together with glue and then the cracks are adorned with gold. There is no attempt to hide the damage; instead, it is highlighted; it is made into a glory.

The practice has come to represent the idea that beauty can be found in supposed failure or imperfection. The breakage is not the end of the world but an opportunity for new beauty. Could your life be treated in this way?

It all reminds me of the Leonard Cohen lyric: ‘Forget your perfect offering – the cracks, they’re how the light gets in.’

Kintsugi does not throw away the broken pot, but makes something new from it, a different kind of beauty. The broken pot is not the end of the story but merely the beginning of a new one.

Failure is neither judged nor a disaster. It is simply re-worked in gold. Is this possible – when at two in the morning the curse of self-judgement and regret appear?

In Kintsugi, the cracks become gold.