Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognise the history of the object and to visibly incorporate the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it. The process usually results in something more beautiful than the original.
It is also called the art of broken pieces or that of precious scars and it holds in itself a very important lesson. When an object breaks, there is a choice; to discard the broken pieces, to put them together but make the object ugly or dysfunctional or to mend it in a way that makes it more precious than before.
The same is true for the human spirit. Adversity, trauma, failure, injustice can break it. Some people will never recover, allowing themselves to sink into depression, addiction, isolation or worse. Some will become bitter, angry, violent and vengeful, while others still will emerge stronger, more compassionate, empathetic versions of themselves, wanting to change the world and make it a better place for everyone else; every wrinkle, every scar a testament to their strength and resilience and making them more beautiful as human beings.
So, what determines how people will react? The most important thing to realise is that it is a choice; a hard one admittedly, but nonetheless a choice.
To a large extent it depends on how we deal with negative emotions. It may help to understand that negative emotions are actually healthy. They are natural and exist for a reason.
For instance, fear helps us react to danger, anxiety makes us more aware of potential threats around us, and guilt makes us reconsider past actions that may have been harmful to others and to make amends with them. Negative emotions are also motivators. They prompt us to act upon our current circumstance and generate positive changes.
Grief and sadness for instance are such emotions which can be catalysts for positive change. Parents losing a child to a rare illness may start a trust which funds research into finding a cure, a family losing a loved one to the bullets of terrorists may rise above its own grief and advocate for the rights of other families like itself.
Anger is another negative emotion and one that is closely related to justice. A person wronged by society can channel his or her anger into a quest for justice and catalyse changes that can help reform a faulty system. This has relevance not just for individuals but for societies as well.
Collective anger against injustice in a society can prompt movements and even start revolutions.The end of apartheid under the leadership of Nelson Mandela is a case in point.
In our own context, the month of Muharram presents an excellent example of the collective way in which a community deals with negative emotions. The story of Karbala is one of a person standing up against oppression, cruelty and injustice. It was an act of defiance, courage and supreme sacrifice. It was also, very much, a political act, a battle between right and wrong, between good and evil.
But consider how this legacy is being carried on. It is commemorated with veneration and love by millions throughout the Muslim world but overwhelmingly by rituals that exhibit unending grief over the tragedy of Karbala. This may have cathartic value but a more fitting tribute would perhaps be a commitment to fight against oppression, to fight injustice and those who usurp the rights of the weak and marginalised.
Millions of faithful have the choice to channel their emotions into mourning and grief rituals or into organising, putting the values of Imam Hussain into practice and becoming a social and political force to be reckoned with in the present world.
At a very small level, imagine the impact it would have if, instead of self-flagellation, mourners in Pakistan were to file outside a blood bank on the day of Ashura. Imagine what this small act would do to showcase discipline, compassion, solidarity and inclusiveness. Imagine the positive ripples in a society as fractured and as lacking in social capital as ours.
That, in essence, is the power that our negative emotions can give us, if we choose to use them positively. Rumi says the wound is the place where the light enters you. So, really the opportunity lies within adversity.
Life is imperfect. We must accept that there will be trials, tribulations, tragedies and lows, but the important thing is that we have a choice in how we deal with them, individually and collectively. Buddha says pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and this is explained aptly in his philosophy of the two arrows.
Imagine a bow with two arrows, one of which has already been released. The first arrow is a difficult life event, challenge, or issue. It can be the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, a failed exam or, even an unfair tax. The second arrow, ready to be released, is our reaction. It may lead us to self-blame, sliding into victimhood or to becoming bitter and resentful. When we shoot this second arrow, we do so straight into the wound caused by the first, making it deeper, wider, more painful. But we don’t need to shoot it.
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Instead, we can choose to heal ourselves, to mend ourselves with compassion and empathy. We can let our pain make us more sensitive to the pain of others, we can be more appreciative and grateful for the small joys life offers, we can let the injustice in our life spur us to fight for our rights and those of others, we can motivate ourselves to try harder after a failure and we can learn to practise forgiveness. We will not remain the same person, we may never forget our hurt or loss, but we may end up becoming a better, stronger, kinder version of ourselves.