Rilke meets the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi, Cohen and Marquez in these reflections on the inevitability and beauty of our imperfections....
'Ring them bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering…'
‘there is always something left to love’
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I’m often struck that Cohen’s next lines from Anthem – the ones about the crack in everything – are quoted so very often, and that these get less attention. Stunning as those big picture lines are, these ones are also worth treasuring for their practicality and command: they invite us toward contribution, with whatever is left of us, while we still can. They also bring to mind this wise, redeeming statement from Marquez: 'There is always something left to love’.
There is always something left to love, though it sure doesn’t always feel like it.
So I’d like to explore a little the territory these words provoke, the invitation I see in them, and the challenge they lay down to us.
What stops us courageously expressing ourselves like this, seeing that the world needs us, and sharing what we have to offer? For many of us, it’s some blend of shame, convention, fear, and worry that we are not worthy or will not be wanted in what we might have to offer. Sometimes it’s that we can’t forget the dreams we have failed to realise, the self we have failed to become. We are too disappointed; we imagined a perfect offering we could bring the world, one we perhaps hoped to shine in.
Our disappointment in our lives may feel deep and real. Our mourning has a truth to it - there is poignancy and pain in our glance backwards to the potential that lies unrealised, and the selves we failed to be. We have genuine grief there, maybe a sense of tragedy or haunting regret, bewilderment or error. Yet life itself is injured when we allow that sense of failure or lament to be our end point, to silence us and separate us from seeing that we are still of value, that there are tasks and beings that call us into life, just as we are.
‘everything here apparently needs us.’ Rilke
For here we still are, and here the world is. Here life is. Here others are. And, for all our failings, for all the disappointments, truncated hopes and stunted capacities we sense may litter our past, there is another sense in which, as Rilke says, ‘everything here apparently needs us.’
It may be hard to believe in the necessity Rilke speaks of – to see that our presence is inherent and of worth. And yet, it is all we have – and we have it only once, here (as Rilke continues) ‘in this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have been this once, completely, even if only once: to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing…’
becoming more precious for having been broken
In appreciating our imperfection, I'm reminded of the Japanese craft of Kintsukuroi – in which ceramic bowls have cracks repaired with gold. In Kintsukuroi, when a broken object is repaired and its fractures rendered visible, we draw deliberate, honouring attention to its fragility, imbuing it with a more symbolic, complex beauty. Instead of the break diminishing the bowl's appeal, the object becomes more precious for having been broken.
Put more poetically, from this perspective, “the true life of the bowl…began the moment it was dropped…" This echoes Leonard’s words about the value of the ‘crack in everything,’ and Franciscan Richard Rohr’s central thesis in Falling Upwards – that it is what we do with the failures of our lives that contains their redemption.
So what if all this is true, and our broken, incomplete, un-longed for self is the better self – the one we were always intended to become? Despite our protests, it is who we have become and who we are: this real, limited, weird, irreconcilable, radically incomplete and contradictory human (who frustrates us endlessly). Can we nonetheless trust what life has done to us, and recognise that there is a richness and a gift capable of shining through the flaws and weaknesses we are often more acutely aware of?
This is to ring the bells that still can ring, to notice what faculties and capacities remain, what has been shaped by damage and what its’ gift might be. Being able to ‘forget our perfect offering’ is to drop our preoccupation with what we have failed to achieve, to recognise that we must mostly turn away from what is not, even if it once seemed possible or destined, and instead show up in our incompletion and tend to what is left for us to love.
the aesthetics of incompletion
I find great comfort and freedom in this nose to the grindstone work ethic from the imperfect self. There is less shame, less apology, less holding-back. A recognition that the ‘perfect’ will never be achieved, but that what is here is capable of contribution, and is all I will ever have. I remember reading somewhere that to work as a psychotherapist, it helped to have a feel for the ‘aesthetics of incompletion’. The implications of this are slowly dawning on me - that the hunt for wholeness serves as a distracting mirage and that, as Pema Chodron suggests, life often resembles more closely the vulnerability and openness of unrequited love: tender, unfinished, raw and full of longing.
Marquez’ words bring solace here, in their deep simplicity and truth. When life crashes and seems to lie in ruins around us, there is always something left to love. Often, what’s left to love is us. Often, another being or creature. Maybe - almost always - both. In any case, life calls to us, as Rilke says. Bells must be rung, and they are rung sometimes in celebration, sometimes in lament, but always, they are sacred, they mean something.