Nothing is Finished, Nothing is Perfect

If you zoom out far enough pretty much everything looks absurd. It’s a handy way to reduce stress. Worried about the future? Think about how you would explain your worries to an alien visitor. You’d have to start the very beginning, explain the entire structure of life on earth and how you fit into it. By the end I’d be willing to bet you’ll feel a little better. That maybe it isn’t a big of a deal as you think.

Perspective can be the salve to thy sores, to paraphrase Milton.

I’ve been thinking about perspective and about what the Japanese call Wabi-Sabi a lot lately. Wabi-Sabi has a many different aspects to it, many of which are deeply entwined in Japanese culture in ways that an outsider like me is unlikely to ever fully appreciate, but the description I encountered, which has stuck with me is the idea that Wabi-Sabi means “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”1

A dozen years ago this week I was at an Iraqi restaurant in Paris. It was a tiny place near the cross roads of two very forgettable avenues, an unassuming door, a small menu board of the kind you see dozens of on nearly every block. I have no recollection of what drew us in, maybe just hunger. There were only four tables, a low ceiling, rock walls and heavy wooden chair and tables. The only people in it were the owner and his wife. To this day I would call it as the best meal of my life. The next morning I was due to get on a plain at Charles De Gaulle and disappear into the Indian subcontinent. I recorded nothing of the day in my journal, nothing of the meal even, though I remember every detail. There is an entry on this site that mentions it, but I haven’t reread it because I have realized it doesn’t matter what I thought.

Whatever I might have thought about that night at the time — and I did have the sense that it was an important moment in my life even at the time — I lacked the perspective to understand it then.

That was the beginning of the journey, that meal is where, for me anyway, a trajectory began that is still taking shape, there was something in that meal, something about eating such amazing food from a country that the country I came from was about to invade and attempt to destroy, something about stumbling through my terrible French, my even worse Arabic and somehow still managing to convey that the food was amazing, that the wine was the best I’ve ever had.

That meal that night was not an awakening so much as a realization that it is possible to duck the politics of the world, to side step the divisions created by the power brokers, the would-be malignant overlords and connect as human beings do, as they always have, by eating together, by talking, by drinking, by walking together down the street, by being human, because life is joy and wonder and love and food and drink and walking. Everything else is just the static background noise of existence.

All the beliefs, all that religions, all the politics, all the attempts to divide are doomed to fail because they fly in the face of the fundamental truth that everyone knows, no matter how hard we sometimes seek to avoid it — that the universe is incalculably immense, goes on forever and we are so small in it as to hardly be of it at all and yet here we are, able to look around, to appreciate the lap of the sea on the shore, the clatter of palm fronds, the whistle of wind in pines, the soft rain, the driving storm, the inhospitable mountains that welcome us home anyway. I don’t know why we’re here and neither do you, let’s have a meal, maybe a drink if you like and we’ll be friends.

  1. from Richard R. Powell’s book Wabi Sabi Simple


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