Houston? We Have A Problem… A Confession and A Gift

“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?*

Well..

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.

Imagine that.

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:

Get A Kintsugi Pin

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.

Be well,

– J

P.S. Send me a picture of you wearing your pin and I’ll post the best ones.

Get Your Kintsugi Pin

42 Replies to “Houston? We Have A Problem… A Confession and A Gift”

  1. Okay…finally had time to read this and would like to weigh in.

    From my own life experience, I agree with you on how we* (humanity collectively) have gotten to such a place is that we were given so many expectations and told they would eventually come true. Remember the “New Deal” as suggested by FD Roosevelt in the 1930s? It is credited with creating the proverbial “American Dream.” From that point in *our* history, we bought into the expectations presented us. So we began a long journey on which we began to cultivate ENTITLEMENT. I “deserve” to have a good job, a fancy car, food in the cupboard, etc. etc. etc. From this misinformation, we look around and see that we aren’t, in fact, able to “keep up with the Joneses.” Yet we feel entitled to reach that level of wealth or what-have-you. So we feel like we’re failing in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of our community, in the eyes of our families, and friends…but worst of all, we are failing in our own eyes. Which is where depression starts to seep in. And those who become depressed, are also absorbing the sense of failure — real or imagined — of those around us, compounding our depression, and potentially creating a many-branched dis-ease in our minds, which WE then take ownership of and flail about like drowning victims, with no help in sight.

    For me, I had to backtrack to childhood to determine where it was that I went off my path, naively buying into the “dreams” without understanding the work that was required to get there. I wanted what I’d seen in the showroom window, but didn’t want to have to pay for it. That was, perhaps, my own naivete and not so much an intentional misleading, but the end result is the same.

    I’ve been fighting deep depression for more than twenty years, and feel that you’ve hit the target as to where that sense of failure/depression comes from. I think it’s much more complex and complicated, with as many dark, deadly tendrils as there are people who experience depression. The means to how we got there are different, but the destination looks very much the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My beautiful friend,
      Yes. I think you have completely understood where I was coming from with this, and I fully connect with what you are saying. I am sorry to hear of your struggles. I think you are right with the points you make here, especially about it being more complex than a mere blog post could hope to illuminate, but it’s a start, and we can go on from here together.
      I’m currently reading a book called ‘Lost Connections’ which deals with the reasons so many people seem depressed in our society. I know it seems like a morose thing but, I feel that only by understanding the problem can we begin to solve it. You may want to check it out.
      Until we speak again, all the love,
      Your friend,
      – J

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As always, you are quite eloquent in your thoughts and in your writing. And I love the idea of reminding ourselves of kintsugi. My healing also came an external philosophy, called “satori.” One of the many therapists I worked with throughout my journey taught this to me, but never told me why this was his approach to my healing. Until one day, I read in the local newspaper that he’d died suddenly from incurable cancer. He never mentioned it to me in our sessions. But he often repeated, “None of it matters.” I was depressed, but depression may be a state of being rather than an illness. Just like happiness. You don’t pursue happiness. You either choose to BE happy, or you don’t. The day I realized his deeper meaning, after he’d passed, was the first time I truly felt the blinders fall away from my eyes. And though I scrambled to put them back in place, afraid to see without them, I eventually got to a place internally when I didn’t “need” them. Truth no longer frightened me. Depression was, for me, a state of denial about the world and my perception of it. It took so much inner heavy lifting to get past that way of thinking. If you had asked me twenty years ago if I could foresee a day when I wasn’t decieved by my own fallible perceptions, I would have laughed and called you a fool. I would have said ,”IMPOSSIBLE.”

        Yet here we are. Here I am. So even though depression may not be directly influenced by the state of being called happy, the pursuit of it as a destination instead of a journey through our personal darkness in which we believe the lies we tell ourselves is most definitely a causal factor.

        Much love and light to you, my beautiful friend.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Your honesty is quite inspiring, and very humbling.
          I am glad that you seem to be making headway and treading the path, and am glad that our individual paths have crossed.
          Keep in touch, always, and be well,
          All the love,
          – J

          Like

  2. Great post, James! As someone who contends with depression, has come through a very dark period in my youth brought about by trauma & is on the wrinkled and imperfect side of over 55, much of what you say resonates. The notion of wabi-sabi is important (perhaps more important than ever in this world) for so many reasons: what we are doing to our planet in the name of profit and endless consumption, how we see our bodies & how willing we are to maim and distort them to emulate fabricated notions of perfection … I could go on, but you get the point. Something to consider: the connection between our unhappiness in the West (and I include western Europe & the UK here) & the dual-headed hydra of aspirational corporate capitalism and class inequality/poverty. It’s messy and ugly, but ultimately, we have to look into the mirror and see how much brainwashing we have been subject to, and how insidious it is. I feel my incredible privilege as a white woman in a stable relationship (that includes economic stability); I look a those facing barriers of all sorts due to the colour of their skin, their first language, their religion, their sexual & gender expression, their mental and physical health, and know that for all the challenges I have faced and surmounted, I have endured nothing in comparison to so very vey many of my fellow travellers on the planet. BE KIND … indeed. (ps – is that shirt still available??)

    Like

    1. Hey there,
      First, thankyou so much for taking the time to read and write me such a beautiful and honest message.
      Unfortunately, the Be Kind shirt was a limited deal, but I will be adding more things to my new shop that will be in a similar vein, so keep a weather eye out.
      I’m sorry to hear of your struggles.
      I agree with you completely. The book I’m currently reading (‘Lost Connections’) includes a wealth of studies showing that rates of depression are much higher in societies in which inequality is prevalent.
      Thanks again for writing – apologies that I was a little tardy in my response.
      Speak soon, and more power to you,
      – J

      Like

  3. I bought your BE KIND t-shirt awhile back and get many comments on it.

    I’ve written a book that uses Kintsugi as the main theme, and it’s dedicated to Leonard Cohen and his perfect quote

    Thanks for keeping the theme going

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There were a lot of good things in this post, but because I was in my second fender bender in 6 months as an Uber driver, I was disheartened and needed it. This “job” which I love doing was the extra income I intended to use to buy camera’s and computers for making my own films. When I got home, I thought maybe it’s not meant to be, because now I won’t be able to drive for awhile and well, you know how self talk can go. Then you hit me with this line. “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.”
    I don’t have a lot of money and I’m not a young person and I struggle with my weight. Worse than that, I live in California where all the “pretty people” live and every inch of your being and how you think is scrutinized. It’s easy to fall prey to it. My car is old, but it’s been a good car and now it’s getting all dinged up with none of it my fault. So, I needed this. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are more than welcome.
      Thankyou for taking the time to write back to me, and for your honesty.
      It sounds like you have some challenges at the moment. The important thing is not to give up.
      Even if you decide to go in a different direction, as long as you keep moving forward things will be ok.
      And if you ever need an ear, you know where to find me.
      Big hug, and more power to you.
      Make those films. No one else can.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a gorgeous header image and pin…living in and travelling through Mexico opened my eyes to happiness, the first time I lived there for three months, I came home, looked around, and realized I had too many “perfect” things…I’m happiest when I come across unexpected gifts, my most recent gift was found on my local library’s second-hand bookshelf where one can buy a precious book for 50 cents…this beautiful book, “The End of Your World” by Adyashanti is blowing my mind sentence by sentence just like your very powerful post…I love how the universe aligns worlds!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Every time I read a message from you I remember all over again just how much I love your messages.
      Second-hand books are a love affair for me, as are books that blow your mind sentence by sentence.
      Thankyou for writing to me. I hope these words find you well. All the love,
      – J

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you (always!), if it wasn’t for you reaching out and “liking” one of my first posts, this virtual friendship/readership may not have happened, although, if the universe wanted our worlds to align, it would have found another way! I am truly well, the warmer, more fragrant air of spring has finally arrived and I’m in my element…I hope my words find you and yours well, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good stuff. We all have to work through this – if we care enough, and I’m glad you do. For me the Seth material by Jane Roberts is key to understanding happiness – in that we create it with our thoughts/feelings which unfortunately are passed onto us at a young age by all those around. It requires a lot of courage to admit my thoughts/beliefs are not reality and can be changed. Then it takes a HUGE amount of work (I’m still at it!) to change them. But if not me then no one else is going to step up for my mind.
    As for looking at the worlds peoples emotions, I recommend the Intelligent Optimist, written by a guy from the Netherlands. He explains how the news has saturated everyone with the most awful events possible, giving no relief to anyone who stays connected. The damage this has done is hard to believe. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading it, and for the thoughtful words and recommendations – I’m glad you connected with it.
      It’s nice to connect with you, hope your day is going well,
      All the best,
      – J

      Like

    2. It’s such difficult and painful work. All Process … ‘product’ (ie, the end) doesn’t exist. I agree, re the Intelligent Optimist … global PTSD is a deep concern.

      Like

  7. I am thinking a lot about happiness and how it should feel, about how my environment (media, colleagues…) suggest how happiness should feel. I have been broken too many times to count. I have the scars to prove it, the wrinkles and the occasional gray hair too. But I still can’t make sense of material happiness, because that is not how I am wired – yet everyone tells me that I should be, and how I should feel. Thank you for this post. I needed to read those words. xx Cathy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankyou for reading it, and for being brave enough to be so honest.
      It is a strange thing that, in some ways we feel so advanced, yet in others I feel we are far behind. I think a great many people feel the same as you do and, the more we bring it out into the open through dialogue, the better things will get for us.
      Big, bug hug,
      – J xx

      Liked by 1 person

Click Here To Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s