The wabi-sabi mentality is reflected in these antique, Asian kettles. A Wabi-sabi worldview is about accepting change and imperfection. 

Buddha once said that “with our thoughts, we make the world.” I’d like to add that with our words, we make our thoughts, so it’s important to choose our words well. 

Sometimes, the way people choose to describe certain experiences can lead to unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. This may cause many to feel crippled in the face of ordinary, important and beautiful parts of life, thus draining the joy from living. If people wish to fix their damaged ideas about what life ought to be like, they should first fix the words they use to build their thoughts about the world. In doing so, people may begin to live in a way that doesn’t limit their growth and crush their potential with trivialities.  

Think of the way people in our society talk about love, for example: “I fell in love,” “I fell head over heels for him,” “I was smitten,” “I’m completely lovestruck.” All of these terms reference pain. Falling isn’t usually a pleasant experience, and neither is being struck by something. “Smitten” is just the past participle of “smite,” which means to be struck, defeated and conquered. 

The words people use to conceptualize love are the same sorts of words they use to describe war, conquest, injury, defeat and other painful or violent experiences. Perhaps if people didn’t think about love in this way, they’d be more comfortable with it and more at peace with their emotions. Maybe conceptualizing the phenomenon of becoming enamored with someone as “walking into love” or “jumping into love” rather than “falling in love” would make people less likely to become obsessive, toxic, vengeful or easily hurt when it comes to romantic relationships.  

Now, think about how people conceptualize things like time, adulthood and impermanence. They constantly talk about wasting or spending too much time on certain activities, ultimately equating time to money. 

When it comes to conceptualizing adulthood, millennials are famous for inventing the word “adulting,” which perpetuates the idea that real adulthood is a state of perfect stability in which one knows exactly what one wants from life and how to achieve it. Since most millennials haven’t reached that sort of state, this term is a way for them to describe how they don’t qualify as realadults and are actually just overgrown children masquerading as adults, barely able to complete mundane tasks or cope with life’s difficulties. 

Impermanence is what may trouble people the most. When people notice a few gray hairs or wrinkles, they wail about their youth slipping away and lament losing their beauty, as if these things ever fully belonged to them in the first place and were meant to be permanent. 

A word particularly useful for thinking about life in all of its beautiful impermanence is “wabi-sabi.” This Japanese term encompasses a worldview in which simplicity, imperfection, impermanence and authenticity are celebrated rather than shunned in favor of an imagined idea of perfection. Life is organic, constantly changing and full of pleasing asymmetry. Adopting a wabi-sabi worldview is partially about knowing that nothing is permanent, that nothing is ever truly finished or complete and that nothing is perfect. The other part of living a wabi-sabi life is learning to love and accept all of this. 

Perhaps our culture needs to come to terms with some simple, hard truths and adjust its words accordingly. Time isn’t quantifiable in the same way that money is, and while we may exchange our time for money, we don’t know how much we have left and can’t work to earn more of it. Time is something we’re given for absolutely no price at all. It’s a gift, and it isn’t being wasted so long as it’s being enjoyed. Life isn’t meant to be stable, and people aren’t meant to be perfect or all-knowing. Using perfection and stability as markers of true adulthood creates a world in which nobody ever becomes an adult.  

Perhaps a better indication of maturity and adulthood would be the ability to cope with instability and change. Impermanence is the only constant in life, so youth and beauty aren’t things which can actually belong to anyone, but rather things which people may borrow from this ever-shifting universe for a brief moment and then give back once their moment is done. What they have left afterward is old age — another temporary gift which ought to be accepted with gratitude. 

If people hold damaging ideas about love, time, adulthood, aging and perfection, perhaps it’s because those ideas are built on a foundation of damaging words. If people change the words they use to describe and think about universal human experiences, they may create patterns of thought, which lead to more fruitful and enjoyable lives.  


Sophia Cabana is a senior history and Independent scholars double-major. Contact Sophia at cabanasl@dukes.jmu.edu.

Sophia Laila Cabana is a writer, poet, artist, and lifelong history enthusiast who loves small dogs, warm tea, and old books. She never leaves her room without a copy of the U.S. Constitution.