You break an antique cup. Now, it’s considered worthless. Good job.
You pick up the pieces and throw them in the trash where they belong, neglected, forgotten, out of sight, out of mind. It’s how you clean up the mess, get over the loss, and correct the mistake – by removing its presence to deny its existence.
Therein lies the problem – the idea that what is broken can’t be fixed, the concept that repair is incomparably inferior in aesthetic to the undamaged.
But there is beauty in damage.
There is strength in being broken.
There is a story behind every scar.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Legend has it that Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his tea bowl.
He thought to himself, “Well, shit, I just broke my tea bowl,” and he sent it back to China from whence it came, hoping the creator could repair it.
After an appropriate amount of time waiting on shipping and handling, the tea bowl came back, its two halves stapled together.
Seriously. Staples. Made in China.
It looked so terrible, the shogun called upon his kingdom’s craftsmen to invent an alternative method of repair that looked, you know, not hideous.
Kintsugi was born.
Kintsugi (n.): the practice of repairing broken ceramics with lacquer adhesive mixed with powdered gold
Imagine the martial artist as a cup – like the one you have to empty, or whatever.
It is easy for the martial artist to revel in strength, in the untarnished perfection that is the unbroken cup. The greatest challenge is facing our demons – seeing new cracks in our cup for the first time. It’s these cracks that shake our foundation, our will, our fire. It’s these cracks that threaten to break us.
Just as expert craftsmanship manifests in a masterpiece ceramic cup, so too will time and practice hone both the physical technique and mental fortitude of the martial artist. With that comes confidence, an air of security and resolve that can create the false illusion that the martial artist, like the beautifully fashioned cup, is unbreakable, which makes facing our imperfections that much more difficult. Whether it be ignorance, denial, or ego that blinds us, we fall, we crack, we break, same as anyone else, same as the cup that is dropped.
What happens when we keep falling, when cracks keep forming? The cup becomes harder to repair. It becomes harder and takes longer to recover, to put the pieces back together. So how do we rise?
Some don’t. The fall breaks them, and they embody their cup’s broken pieces. For some martial artists, injury literally puts them on their backs, with varying prognoses of recovery. Some have the misfortune of being born grounded, with this or that congenital defect. Some are so mentally shaken by defeat that they feel incapable of making a return. Some refuse to get back up.
Some do. Some face adversity, then bounce back by choosing to remain stuck in the realm of what works, what is proven for them and their comfort. Some project their imperfection onto others, shirking the responsibility of owning and addressing their weakness by lying to themselves that it is a circumstantial or universal issue. Some return with full confidence, only to have learned nothing from their previous mistake; they fall once more and, oftentimes, harder. Some make it.
Bruce Lee was blind as a bat. He was near-sighted and wore contact lenses his entire life. His legs were asymmetric – his right longer than the left by an inch. This unevenness tilted his posture, unbalanced his gait, and deviated his spine. At the peak of his prime, his heavy weight training broke his back, a nigh irrecoverable injury that doctors claimed would prevent any sort of intense physical activity in his future, assuming he could ever learn to walk again.
In this case, the subject was born grounded, his cup already a little chipped at the start. Then, the cup was dropped from a skyscraper and steamrolled twice. These are not the marks of a celebrity icon, martial artist, or champion cha-cha dancer. So how did Bruce Lee overcome?
Before he got his hands on those contact lenses, he chose Wing Chun as his first style, a form of Wushu that excelled in engaging at close quarters. Conveniently, Bruce could only see clearly at grappling range, and he obsessed over his martial art, using it as his foundation to create his very own Jeet Kune Do.
He took a southpaw stance, leading with his longer right leg. He ceased symmetric training – exercising the same technique with identical reps bilaterally. Instead, he catered not just his legs, but also his arms to only utilize certain techniques maximally conducive to his new stance. Each of his limbs served vastly different purposes, and he differentially trained them as such. It gave him a flowy, dance-like form that was organic and finely fitted for his unique body.
Bruce Lee did not dwell on the cracks. He did just the opposite. He acknowledged them as an integral part of his life, his story, his cup. He rebuilt himself and his cup around those cracks, filling them with gold.
That doesn’t explain the spinal injury. How do you come back from that?
Sheer force of will. Bruce received the medical team’s prognosis and said, “To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities.” And he learned to walk again. And he learned to run again. And he learned to fight again.
His style underwent a second metamorphosis. The injury severely limited his hip rotation; his body could no longer generate the same power of torque. He compensated by narrowing his dancing fencer’s stance, pulling his arms inward to a centerline guard, and focusing all of his force and techniques directly ahead in a straightforward blitz.
His cup wasn’t just broken. It was smashed. Being Bruce Lee, he refused to leave his cup empty, even though it was more space and void than shards of ceramic. He poured himself into recovery and rehabilitation, into the spaces – and the spaces turned to fissures, and the fissures turned to cracks, and the cracks turned to golden rivers piecing the cup back together. Bruce embraced the damage, accepted that these were sacrifices made for him, and appropriately adapted by making his strengths so insurmountable that his weaknesses didn’t matter, transforming circumstance into opportunity.
Bruce Lee was Kintsugi incarnate, a cup made of gold.
“I don’t want to die without any scars…Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves…May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect.”
– Fight Club
Ultimately, a cup on the shelf is just that. It’s expensive, it looks nice, it has value, but, in the end, it’s just a cup that gathers dust. It begs the question of whether it is worse to resent our limits and trash the broken, or to be comfortable with the purity of stagnancy.
But it’s the cracks that tell a story. Cracks show use, character, adventure, mistakes, and all their concomitant learning. They show preference over pieces that remained pristine and untouched. These are the martial artists who learned to love the fall, appreciate the cracks, and return whole with gold. In line with the principle of Wabi-Sabi – the appreciation of the imperfect, the impermanent, the incomplete – the martial artist who understands and accepts their own weakness can make it a part of their style and their story. These are the martial artists who are well-practiced, weathered by injury, conflict, and setbacks, and have learned not just to endure, but to also embrace the damage.
Their cups are more gold than ceramic, and when gold falls, it dents. It doesn’t crack. Not anymore.
“I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.”
– The Burned Man
Here’s the thing about our weaknesses and imperfections, the cracks in our cups – they’re the wounds on our lives. We can dwell on them, remain broken, and allow the wound to become infected in our despair. We can let the wound fester and slowly eat away at us as we refuse to let go.
But that’s a choice.
And the other – to fill the cracks with gold.
With time and care and a focus on the rest of us that remains intact, fibrosis occurs, and collagen cross-links align themselves in a singular direction, stronger than the original tissue.
A scar forms.
And girls dig scars.