there’s a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
(Leonard Cohen: Anthem)
According to some Buddhist teachings, there is inevitable pain in life. Buddhists call it dukkha, translated as “suffering”, “unsatisfactoriness” or – interestingly enough – “anxiety, stress”. Our hearts get broken, sometimes more than once. We lose someone. We encounter illness. We endure war, or live in fear of persecution for who we are or what we believe. Sometimes, just the plain unbearable lightness of being can be enough to wear you down.
Spirituality, philosophy, or religion, can offer a place of solace for these cracks inside our selves. But sometimes, metaphysics does not speak the same language as our minds – some of us keep a distance to it, afraid it might undermine our rationality or our professional credibility; or we fear spirituality might require us to change our beliefs, or to adopt new ones.
Another place of solace often comes through art. Art is proving to be accessible both through spirituality and rationality, and its works often translate more easily throughout different cultures – which cannot always be claimed of spiritual or metaphysical teachings.
But no matter which vehicle we choose when dealing with adversity, here are some common strategies we employ:
1. Ignore It (Denial)
Denial remains a popular defense mechanism. In fact, it is usually cited as the first step in the five stages of grief.
Socially, it’s widely accepted, as it also lessens the pressure others might feel to try to help us. Pain is not a happy topic, and few people can receive it well. Bringing it up can even cost us friendships; sometimes we may find ourselves let down by the people from whom we were expecting support.
Ignoring pain might work at first, but usually fails after a while. Of course, the longer we remain in denial, the greater also the risk of actually increasing the damage.
2. Mend It (Disguise)
When denial fails us, we can try to put ourselves back together in the way we were before. In paper conservation, a broken piece of paper can be mended by repairing its reverse side, by the use of tape or pieces of Japanese papers. The goal is for the front to appear as unbroken as possible, leaving lines and cracks concealed or disguised.
The purpose of this technique is to preserve the original, and to minimize the loss that occurred. People choose this technique if they liked themselves the way they were before, or if they have trouble adjusting to the change that occurred. Mending also implies that the change may be perceived as a negative event that worsened the quality of the artwork – which is why we talk about it here as damage.
If you choose this technique, you might hope that no one will see what you’ve experienced.
3. Acknowledge It (Emphasis)
Kintsugi (Japanese: “to repair with gold”) is a Japanese art form in which broken pieces of pottery or ceramics are repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, or other material.
Kintsugi wasn’t always an art form. At first, there was the plain brokenness of the pottery, as it happens, and more or less effective repair techniques. The problem with these techniques was usually that it was almost impossible to conceal the cracks perfectly – often, a thin line remained visible. As a result, people started looking for a way to beautify the remaining lines.
Repairing with gold became immensely popular, as it added something new to every piece that made it unique, and that couldn’t have been created this way deliberately. It required the event of having been broken before the real beauty of the piece could emerge. Adding gold to the lacquer even emphasized the cracks, which is directly opposed to trying to disguise them. In fact, people apparently went as far as smashing pottery on purpose, just so they could be repaired using the kintsugi technique.
Disguise and Emphasis are both forms of damage control.
4. Transform It (Emergence)
Or we can try to build something completely new out of the broken pieces.
This is where the magic happens. We transcend the original setup. Put two or more things together, watch how they interact, how they contradict or complement each other – and add a new element to the mix that wasn’t there before.
Emergence means that a kind of growth occurs: The sum is greater than its parts (Plato). The single pieces are being rearranged, which can cause anxiety if the person is attached to their original form. The outcome is something bigger than what was there before; this is why the coping technique of emergence can give us a feeling of freedom, courage, hope, and even purpose. Using emergence, there isn’t even a crack left to speak of, as the piece as a whole has been transformed.