Don’t Fix Our Broken Civic Pottery
The Japanese art of kintsugi celebrates brokenness. When treasured kitchenware breaks, the broken pieces are reassembled using a precious metal like copper, silver, or gold. The mended bowl, cup, or plate then wears its repaired and glimmering cracks as enhancements to its original design.
How can we practice kintsugi on each other? How can we experience personal healing by acknowledging where our civic discourse is broken through its beautification?
Some notes for context.
Written out, the below process feels mechanical. Speaking the words around a dinner table or while walking smoothes out the exchange and makes it feel less formulaic. Keep in mind that the formula or structure provides the security for the conversation to go deeper. In United States culture, we tend to pigeonhole these conversations into the “talk much, do little” category of philosophical exchanges. These conversations happen in college. They happen after a few glasses of whiskey. They happen by chance while sharing time with friends. They happen when being confronted boldly by a stranger who doesn’t share relationship baggage with us. In all cases, growth might happen, and it might not.
We can change the happenstance nature of these conversations by being upfront about our intentions, our desires, and by practicing compassionate, but direct, communication. The goal is to create safe, but not sterile, spaces for interaction so we can let our hair down without putting our foot down. In this way, and like the practice of kintsugi, we can preserve the space for growth created by our cracked civic pottery, while beautifying otherwise jagged edges.
Here’s what I’ve been practicing with friends and family. I hope it’s of some use. Please let me know how you change it to suit your needs.
First, we start by identifying the basic pieces of civic pottery we share in common.
Here are a set of questions to help identify them.
- What is simply stated and hard to live? This is a favorite starter question but I acknowledge that it might rub some folks as too wooly. Here’s an alternative.
- What question would you like to know the answer to by the end of this week? This is also a starter question, but more specific to a person’s lived experience in the moment you connect with them.
- What single word, feeling, or concept captures this? Think of words like love, forgiveness, acceptance, security, safety, strength, empathy, friendship.
Make a list. These words represent your civic pottery pieces, your basic common ground. Another way to arrive at this point that is less conversational and more direct.
Would you say that X is important to you?
In this case, X represents love, forgiveness, acceptance, security, safety, empathy, curiosity, or another word that represents a basic, personally held value.
Would you say that [love] is important to you?
If the individual or group responds affirmatively, that’s your starting point.
Next — a slightly more challenging part — ask how the person or people within a group defines and receives those pieces in their life. Here’s an example.
How do you define love?
How do you receive love?
Here’s another example using safety.
How do you define safety?
When do you feel most safe?
It might be awkward to ask how someone receives safety, since this is implied in their definition. Use your best judgement.
Our goal is to agree on basic pieces, to define common ground, then to exchange definitions and experiences of what we often take for granted — when was the last time you asked a friend how they define, receive, live their core values? When was the last time you asked a foe?
Once we do this, we can begin to ask how a given action reflects a person’s values, and if asked, share how your actions reflect yours.
The entirety of this conversation cannot happen rapidly. The beginning stages staking out common ground will quickly lead to the slower task of describing what that ground looks like (definition of terms) and feels like (living reception of what is being defined). It’s possible these different stages of conversation will bleed into each other as well.
The conversion also needs a willingness for each person to withhold judgement and to state this withholding forthright. The withholding of judgment doesn’t need to be permanent.
A helpful example or tone setter comes from a common movie watching experience. When we watch a movie we don’t question why the main character doesn’t acknowledge the camera. We don’t question why they don’t acknowledge us, the viewer, and know that we are seeing into a bit of their lives. We let this slide because we’re watching a movie.
In a formal or contained setting, the request can be introduced as follows.
In this conversation, we invite you to do the same thing you would when watching a movie — to suspend disbelief. For the course of our conversation, let’s not allow our questions to distract us from the story. Let’s take in the story as it unfolds. Let’s withhold judgment until the end of the conversation when you are welcome to react or respond however you wish.
Ultimately, the goal isn’t to persuade or promote. The goal is to learn.
One final thought buried deep in this reflection so that it might avoid detection! In these times, I struggle to balance urgency and importance. Here’s a graph to illustrate or give a reminder of this well known model of prioritization.
Despite wanting to engage in urgent work, I feel a call to contribute to important work, whether it is urgently needed or not. Cultivating enriching relationships, for me, represents work that is important, but that cannot always be done urgently. Like the practice of kintsugi, which demands its practitioners take care to avoid cutting their hands on jagged edges, cultivating relationships produces a beauty that develops over time.
For those who have made it to this hanging thought — thank you! Your thoughts and struggles are welcome. Consider this an invitation for us to struggle and practice civic kintsugi together.