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The perfection of imperfection

20170301_094357In my office, I have a mug from which I drink my tea. It’s a nice mug, handmade and in a dark, dark red – very much an Anna mug. It has an ear to hold it by, but when I drink tea, I like cradling the mug, hold its warmth in my hands. Whenever I do so, one of my fingers will automatically stray to the flaw in my mug: right at the base, there’s a point where the clay broke off or the mug was chipped between firing and glazing. About one centimetre wide, the imperfection has jagged edges. I run my finger back and forth over it – repeatedly. It is soothing, somehow.

While not all of you may have a tea mug like mine, I bet you’ve all had a loose tooth—or a cavity or a blister in your mouth, or a seed stuck between your teeth. And I bet all of you have run your tongue over whatever the defect may have been. The imperfection attracts, so to say.


Perfection is rarely alluring. That picture-perfect home, in which the tassels line up in regimental order, the pillows are plumped just so, the tables and shelves are dustless—it comes across as stiff and cold. Life has not left its mark on the sofa cushions, there isn’t any indication of anyone ever having breathed and laughed—even danced—in this beautiful space. It doesn’t tell us anything about the owner—beyond them suffering from OCD—it is just a reflecting surface, anonymous and cold. Until we add a book turned upside down on the coffee table, a hoodie thrown in the sofa. An arrangement of tulips that is well beyond its best before date spilling pollen and faded petals on the floor. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich, the bread dry enough to crumble at the touch. Signs of life, of time passing. And life is rarely perfect, is it?

I suppose it is mostly a matter of contrast: we need the slight imperfection to appreciate the beauty that surrounds it. Or maybe it’s as simple as perfection being a bit boring. A slightly crooked nose in an otherwise picture-perfect face makes the whole more interesting, teases us with various scenarios as to why it is crooked.
A mole—essentially a defect—may instead highlight the lustre of the skin that surrounds it.
The uprooted tree that leans drunkenly against its soughing neighbour serves to underline that life is ephemeral—thereby making it more precious.
A rose in full bloom is breathtakingly beautiful – but it is already tainted by decay, a faint line of brown edging its perfection.

Kintsugi – the art of making imperfections into perfection (Image Wikipedia)

In some cultures, the irregularities, the cracks, are appreciated. In Japan, broken porcelain bowls were often repaired in such a way as to highlight the crack, resulting in creations that are beautiful because of their defects, not despite of them. Sometimes, they fill in the cracks with gold, and what was broken and ugly is elevated to finest art. Maybe an approach we should learn something from, all of us who live in a world that is increasingly fixated on outward perfection, all the way from ourselves to our homes, our gardens, our cars.

It’s not as if anyone is perfect. No matter how hard we work at our exterior, we all have our warts, our hidden cracks. It’s what makes us human, what makes us interesting and unique. It’s what makes my tea mug mine. Its little defect is what sets it apart, makes it immediately distinguishable from other dark red tea mugs. I like that it is different – I like that I am different, that I am me, even if that is mostly due to my many imperfections than my (very) few perfections. Rephrase: it’s the sum of my imperfections that makes me perfectly me!

Below in the comments Gabriel has weighed in with a link to a beautiful poem about cracks and their consequences. The poem is by René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (quite a mouthful), a French poet who was the first ever winner of the Nobel prize back in 1901. Anyway: I think the link may well get lost in the comments so I post it here instead and urge you to pop over to the site and read it. Very beautiful.

17 thoughts on “The perfection of imperfection”

  1. Gabriel Vital-Durand

    Dear Anna,
    Thanks for this lovely evocation. It reminded me of a famous poem by Sully-Prudhomme. Here is the French original as well as a good English rendering. I hope you will appreciate it. Note the fitting illustration.
    Sincerely. GVD

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