Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that honors the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of the material world. It dares even to name such things beautiful. (Some explanations and illustrations can be found here and here.)
What would it mean to take a wabi-sabi approach to justice work? My friend Traci got me to thinking about this. She and I, alongside others, are engaged in an ongoing communal reflection on white identity. It is hard, sometimes painful, always disorienting work. But the sponsoring organization Speaking Down Barriers offers some key community guidelines that help structure the space for such intense explorations. One of those, "I will not seek to be right or perfect," recognizes that the work of excavating our own implications in white supremacy is a halting, non-linear, perplexing process. When paired with pledges "to speak and listen in truth and love" and "to speak only from my own experience," we are able to engage ourselves and one other without demanding perfection in speech or action. Authenticity, respect, humility, commitment: yes. Perfection: no.
The process rarely feels beautiful in the moment. It mostly feels insufficient in the face of overwhelming injustice. But we all show up because we recognize that such work, if not sufficient, is still vitally necessary. It is our very imperfection that draws us together.
Honoring imperfection need not be an excuse for inaction. Quite the opposite. If we think we cannot contribute anything until we get it just right, we will stay silent forever. We will fail to speak out or stand up or march forward. But if perfection is not the standard, then certain risks drop away.
A wabi-sabi approach to justice work assures us that perfection need not be our goal. Rather we reach toward a vision of beloved community, continually calibrating a balance between conviction and humility. The work of justice is about mending the world's brokenness, starting with ourselves and our own communities. Such mending may be imperfect, but for those engaged in the work it is not optional. We do the work, always imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. And every now and then, beauty alights in our midst and takes our breath away.