“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” – Hemingway
[Fair warning: this post gets a little dark in places, but stick with it till the end and there will be light and a cool surprise.]
I was born in 1978 and it is a sobering fact that every year I’ve been alive the number of people in our culture suffering with depression has increased. This rise also holds true for opioid addiction, and suicide rates.
It would seem that we have a problem.
So what is it?
I am not a doctor. I am not a psychologist. I am not a self-help guru or cult leader, so I do not have to claim definitive answers. That said, it seems to me that each of these things have some relationship with unhappiness. That, if more people in our culture were truly happy, fulfilled, and satisfied, depression, addiction, and suicide rates would not be rising quite so dramatically.
(Let me be absolutely clear here, I’m not saying unhappiness is the only reason for these things, but it does seem to at least be a factor.)
So why? Why are we as a culture less than happy?
The vast majority of us in the West enjoy material abundance and opportunity on a scale undreamt of by even our most recent ancestors (let alone those living in the world right now born into less fortunate circumstances). On the surface of it our way of life looks pretty good, so what’s going on?
Part of the issue is the way we’ve been collectively conditioned to view life. Said differently: part of the problem is the frame through which we individually and collectively filter meaning from our experience.
What do I mean by ‘frame’? I’ll give you an example:
Imagine you live in a place where nudity is accepted as a cultural norm. When you see a naked person you’ll likely just wave to them and go about your day. But, if you were to live in a place where exposed skin is considered sinful, when confronted by the exact same sky-clad person you’ll likely have a much different response. Anger perhaps, or shame, or outrage.
The frame we view an experience through changes the meaning of that experience, and therefore our response to it. It changes how we feel about something.
As I’ve written before, in the West we tend to deify the unattainable ideal of perfection. We see it in the adulation of the 16 year old pop star, the craving for the brand new iPhone, the idealization of perfect skin and whiter than white teeth.
Am I saying these things are bad? Not at all. But let me ask you something: if your sole conception of beauty is flawless youth, what does that say about you as you age? If everything you own has to be brand new and perfect, how will you ever reach a place where you can rest in satisfaction? And if impossibly smooth unblemished skin is the ideal, what story will our wrinkles and scars whisper to us in the dark?
Our frame is mostly made up of value judgements (this thing is good, this thing is bad etc) but these judgements are not objective truth (even though they can seem as if they are in the moment). In fact, values vary wildly across cultures, and here’s the point:
When you consciously choose to take on different values, you change your frame.
And when you change the frame through which you view life, your life changes.
Of all of the conceptions of beauty I’ve been exposed to, the Japanese is one of the more useful. It’s much closer to nature than ours, which is to say: it’s closer to the natural order of how things really are. (Not surprising when you consider that much of the Japanese aesthetic is rooted in Taoism, a philosophy and religion which prizes becoming one with the flow of the natural world above all else.)
Which leads me to my next bold statement:
Part of the reason we’ve been having such a hard time in the West is because the things that are held up to us as ideals, are Lies.
*Shock! Horror! How could you say such a thing?*
Have you ever seen a before and after photograph of a magazine cover model shoot? The final image is, in many cases, unrecognizable when compared to photographs of the model in real life. Legs are stretched, abs shaded in, skin is airbrushed by the finest digital artists, features are moved, symmetry is sought, cheekbones are perfected.
Even cover models don’t look like cover models.
But what do you get when you bombard an entire culture of people with images and stories that are, at their root, unattainable lies?
You get depression. You get addiction to numbing substances. You get rising suicide rates.
How could you not? Everybody is failing.
Please understand me. I know these are very sensitive issues for many people, and I’m not trying to marginalize them or claim something overly simplistic like ‘advertising is the root of all evil and is the sole reason people commit suicide, take drugs, or feel down’. It’s obvious that the problem is far deeper and more complex than that.
All I’m saying is: if the frame through which you view the world (your rules of the game so to speak) is set up so your goals are unattainable and anything less than perfection means you’re failing, how do you think you’re you going to feel most of the time?
Probably not good, right?
And if you’re willing to accept even the smallest of connections between unhappiness and: depression, drug addiction, and suicide, then it seems obvious that the frame we’re currently using is not optimal for our individual or collective wellbeing.
But what can we do about it?
As I said at the start of this post, I don’t claim to have the whole answer. But part of it is surely to change the frame through which we view the world to something a little more helpful.
How do we do that?
I’m glad you asked.
Nestled within the Japanese aesthetic of beauty there is an art form called Kintsugi (this is something that I’ve written about before). I’ve come to believe that this artform is not only one of the best metaphors for how life really is, but that it can also give us the gift of a much better frame.
Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is that artform that consists of repairing broken pottery with actual gold. Objects are repaired not to hide damage but to celebrate it, because in Japan, objects that are repaired in this way are considered more beautiful for having been broken.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
Imagine for a second how it would feel if a scar was not something to be ashamed of but a source of pride. Imagine if we, as a culture, celebrated not the young for their beauty but the aged for their wisdom. Imagine if we loved not the unwrapped for it’s illusory perfection, but the lovingly used for it’s ever-deepening history.
Imagine if your eyes found more beauty in the imperfectly real than in the dirty lie of the pristine.
All of which brings me neatly to my confession.
The reason I’ve thought so much about these things isn’t because I’m some great thinker, or have been blessed with some special insight, but simply because I’ve experienced significant periods of darkness, doubt, and despair in my own life. My search for the good has been driven less by the ideal of the bold hero engaged in a righteous quest, and more by the growing panic of a drowning man flailing ever more wildly this way and that for anything that will float.
(If you should find these words concerning , please don’t worry at all. I’ve come a very long way from those days and feelings and, in truth, am now pretty happy most of the time – due in large part to what you are about to read.)
When I reflect upon my own worst times I find that a vast component of my pain issued from the repeating refrain of: ‘This is not the way it should be’. I was holding up an image within myself that did not mesh with reality and was reaping the friction-filled pain of the resistance that this image engendered.
Slow though I may sometimes be, over time I’ve learned: whenever I argue with reality, I lose. (And also that: acceptance and celebration of the Way Things Actually Are is nearly always the first part of moving forward.)
The symbol of Kintsugi is something I’ve returned to again and again, and which has, over time, genuinely impacted my own frame around life. This idea has helped me become a happier, more fulfilled human being by showing me that damage is a sign of life, brokenness is not an evil, and that there is beauty to be found even in the darkest of places. And (because of the many heartfelt letters, messages, and comments I’ve received concerning my writing around this subject) I know it’s helped others too.
But here’s the issue:
Humans are forgetting creatures. In this regard I’m no different from anybody else. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve heard, read, or had a thought about something potentially life changing, only to have it vanish into the ether in the space between one breath and the next, gone forever.
To remember something (to really remember it, so that it’s there when we truly need it) it must be conditioned into our minds through consistent daily repetition.
I wanted a physical reminder of the idea of Kintsugi for myself, so I designed a pin. A badge showing a delicate network of fractures, repaired with gold. I showed it to an artist friend for feedback who asked me what it was, and then (after I’d explained it to her) asked whether I’d make one for her too. Her response was so immediate, so visceral, that it made me think maybe other people could benefit from having one.
But how would you even do that? Well, I guess you could make an online store…
So I made an online store.
Welcome! To the James Radcliffe Store. Today is our grand opening.
We have one item in stock:
If you are now bracing yourself for a hard sell, do not fear, this may not even be for you. In fact, I rather hope it’s not.
If you’re in a pretty good place emotionally and you’re happy with your life then it probably isn’t (and more power to you). But, if you’re in a hard place (or want to armor yourself against hard places) if you’re going through a tough time, or could just do with a clear reminder of a different perspective, then I absolutely made this for you and want you to have it.
(Side note: If you have a friend who is going through a hard time, giving them one of these as a present could be a really good way of showing you care while opening up a conversation about brokenness and tough times, and how they aren’t always a bad thing.)
“Nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” – Rocky Balboa
When I make anything it takes time, which is my life. So I only make things which are: truly meaningful, or beautiful (or just very, very cool). This pin ticks all of those boxes. I designed it myself and went through more than 50 iterations before settling on the final image. I hand-drew every single one of the elements and, to fill the cracks, used my own photographs of real gold leaf.
This tiny thing was made with a lot of love. Each pin is fabricated from the highest quality materials, ships worldwide and, with a little care and attention, should last a lifetime.
(Note: Sometimes when I release things there’s an initial rush. These shouldn’t sell out, but if you have any difficulty placing your order just try again.)
Thanks for taking the time to read this – I truly appreciate it. If you have any thoughts, questions (or just want to chat) the comments box is just below.
P.S. Send me a picture of you wearing your pin and I’ll post the best ones.