Several years ago, I kept my promise to my husband that we would hold our annual Thanksgiving dinner in our home for close friends and family despite the special circumstance that year.
Thanksgiving was only two weeks after my father’s unexpected death and a week after his memorial service. I didn’t cancel. After all, we were expecting 24 guests and life must go on.
Every year for the past many, when the turkey is finally cooked, the dishes are warmed, and the guests are all sitting around the table, we traditionally give a toast to honor the friends and family who are unable to join us.
That year, that night, I gave a toast in honor of my father. No tears came. In its place a sad thought came to my attention, “Who am I if I am no longer Robert Chang’s daughter? Who am I now?”
Who am I now? I was a mother to a 7 year old and a new mother to a two month old then. I was a parent, but my own parent had just died. The parent who would pick up the phone when I called and tell me that he had all the time in the world for me. My father would let me talk without interruption, without prying questions, without me feeling I was taking up his time. My father was the strictest keeper of secrets and pretty much non-judgmental unless you directly asked him for his opinion and help, which I kept to a minimum.
That night, as I raised my glass in his honor I recognized that because he no longer occupied a place on this earth I could no longer point to him and announce proudly to someone I just met that I am his daughter and he my father.
That thought crushed me.
Identity-busting moments. There are moments in our lives that can shatter our identity almost in an instant—the death of a parent, the loss of a job, a marriage that suddenly falls apart, difficulty conceiving a child, a betrayal by a good friend.
The reality hits us hard. We feel rattled. Disoriented.
Our insides hurt. It’s as if we swallowed broken glass.
We are left wondering …
Who am I if I’m no longer so-and-so’s daughter?
Who am I now that my employer has laid me off?
Who am I when my spouse tells me she no longer loves me?
Who might I be if I cannot become a mother to a child I birth?
How could my judgment be so poor as to be betrayed by my good friend?
Our sense of self can be strong and it can also be fragile.
It can be shaken up simply by an unforeseen harsh word, a flash of embarrassment, or unjust treatment received at an inopportune time, when we feel most vulnerable or when we are completely unprepared and taken by surprise.
These emotional hits can catch us off guard.
We teeter and we totter and we almost fall down.
Somehow we endure the pain.
Still standing. We get up.
We dress like we should.
Smile when we are expected to.
Laugh at jokes.
Enjoy a meal like we mean it.
Hold down a job and earn a living supporting our families.
We appear normal.
Appearances are deceiving.
We know the hard truth.
We aren’t the same as we once were.
As the weeks, months, and years wear on, we search for ways to get by.
We distract ourselves.
Distraction gets us by. We purchase sparkly pens, a new fancy shirt, notepads, handbags, and other shiny objects that catch our eye.
Our closets may be filled with shoes never worn, clothes with the price tags still on, or silk scarves in a jumbled pile.
Our living room walls may be adorned with the latest HDTV flat panel screen or wireless speakers.
These new “toys” help fill the emotional void.
They help shove the broken bits of our selves deeper inside the recesses of our mind.
They turn our attention away from our hurt and offer quick jolts of joy.
Yet, still, the pain persists.
Some of us choose to run.
Run like the wind. We run from our broken selves by making wholesale change.
We don’t follow through on our promises, finish up academic degrees, or engage with our community.
We leave our spouse, our neighborhood, our job, and even our country.
Only to discover that running away, changing the scenery, starting all over again doesn’t dull the pain.
That pain is in our bones.
Imagine a beautiful vase that gets tipped over and now lays on the ground in shattered pieces.
Like broken pottery. What if we were those broken pieces of pottery?
What if instead of purchasing objects to distract our selves, we sat with our feelings and inspected them more closely? We would understand that each broken piece of pottery is unique.
What if instead of running from pain, we embraced ourselves as we are instead of mourning what once was? We would understand that no matter where we move the pieces of pottery they remain broken.
What if we examined the edges of each piece, found its mate, and tried to join the uneven edges together? We would appreciate how difficult it is to return a vase to its original condition.
If we used glue to bind the seams together, our eyes would notice all the contours of repair and we would be reminded that this vase is no longer the same.
Glue it back together? We would see it as less than its former self. We would regard it as imperfect. This vase would be defective in our eyes even if it can hold water again.
This kind of mending is like the “distract” or the “run” approaches to not dealing with our hurt, loss, disappointment. It’s a poor substitute for the original.
I think there’s a better way.
What if we borrowed the Japanese practice of Kintsugi where broken pieces are mended by filling the seams with gold, silver, or platinum laced lacquer?
Try the Kintsugi way. The art of Kintsugi renders something broken into something extraordinarily beautiful.
Can the golden joinery approach work for us?
What if instead of distracting ourselves or running from pain, we filled the interstices where our hurt lies with love and experiences that can bring us more lasting joy and meaning?
We could make an effort to spend more of our time being with people we love and who love us, creating lasting memories together.
We could seek experiences that stretch us intellectually, physically, or emotionally, that play to our strengths and remind us of what we enjoy, what our bodies can do, and how deeply we can feel.
We could help others who may be experiencing a similar hurt, loss, or disappointment and feel empowered.
By welcoming joy and meaning back into our lives, we begin the process of becoming whole and healthy again.
Like pottery repaired the Kintsugi way, what is left is even more beautiful, more spectacular than the original.
Imagine being mended back whole with love and experiences that are like gold lacquer where we don’t feel diminished, less than perfect, or ashamed; where we’re not looking back and wishing we could be the “before” picture; where we aren’t pretending we are okay.
This centuries old art form can teach us not to cover up, but to show off; not to pretend, but to face reality; not to be distracted by shiny objects, but to seek people, experiences, and love.
Let’s try patching ourselves up the Kintsugi way.
Let’s mend ourselves more beautiful in gold.
Are you with me?
We all reach adulthood with disappointment, hurt, and loss. Sometimes it feels safer to hide and pretend that everything’s all right. Sometimes it’s just easier to leave the broken pieces alone. A pot mended the Kintsugi way reminds me that though some part of me may be broken I am more beautiful when I fill the fissures with joy and meaning. It reminds me that kindness starts with being kind to myself first. I wish that for you.
Are you hiding your hurt? Are you pretending the pain isn’t there? How might you bring some gold lacquer into your life? What can you do to become a more beautiful, mended you? Who are your helpers?
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A sprinkle of inspiration!
A gift for you.