Saturday, September 1, 2018

With a Nod to Time's Passing

"The tap drip-drip-drips into the sink. Given a thousand years, it will erode a hole through the stainless steel with its soft but persistent caresses. The milk in the fridge moves, second by second, toward its "best before" date. It is an inevitable reminder of time passing and how, through the very act of existence, the unmarred, unspoiled purpose of things moves inexorably toward expiration."
Bradley Somer, Fishbowl, p 140-141.

As I reflect upon wabi sabi, I am not sure which I appreciate more: direct references and commentary on it, or passages such as the one above, which making an incidental comment on the transience that is such a key aspect of wabi sabi. These passing, more "Western" references to the essence of wabi sabi underline what Richard R. Powell says in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, "you may know it well, but never named it." (p. 2)

Reminded that the core principles of wabi sabi -- nothing is permanent; nothing is perfect; nothing is complete -- are not unique to a Japanese aesthetic or worldview, we can take a more critical look at the situations where these principles are ignored in the West.

While we are willing to accept the passage of time and the way it impacts us and our surroundings, we are still inclined to place inordinate faith in the new, especially if it is modern or technological. With these there is the hope that time and gravity can be defied by the new, whether it is genetic innovation, more powerful batteries, a management guru's new insight or a pre-fab composite that lures DIY'ers to Home Depot.

The temptation with the new is to presume that it is a panacea, or utopian with the solutions they offer. We know of the power of time and we are familiar with the gentle degradations it brings. Whether it is the graying of hair, the sprouting of crow's feet, and the peeling of paint or more existential declines spawned by tinctures of hubris, complacency or lesser, latent demons we rust -- individually, collectively or in the institutions we gather around. Decline is inevitable. It is noble to resist it and fight it off, but it is a battle best fought by attentiveness and vigilance rather than by late, drastic interventions that can as Somer put it in his quote above, mar or spoil the purpose of things, not to mention their essence or character.

The new, and especially the new and technological, enchant us with the promise of defeating time, at least on one front. The promise is often such that we presume them to be the ultimate step, that finishing touch that in itself will defy decay as well. The optimism of our neomania makes us confident that this new thing will not only enhance our well-being but defy the passage of time as well. We presume that new treatment will heal people indefinitely and the targeted scourge will not adapt, that new way of motivating or managing people will work with everyone and not cloy with cliche or simplistic approaches. We are certain everybody's Teslas will evade rust and decline.

That optimism reserved for the very new is not always instinctive or incidental, however. Sometimes it is part of the sell job that accompanies the new. The promise of the new or next decays quickly and the assertion that it will unshackle itself from the passage of time and evade the need for maintenance. There is the insistence of perfection, a promise that feeds into our desire to hold on to things more tightly: our youth, our strength, our appetites for more, for our delusions about our place and our potential to, like the new, escape the insistence of time. The siren call of the new tempts us regularly, luring us into futile consumption that will never fulfill the promise of youth but eventually amplify the extent of the inevitable decay.

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