On the Beauty of Imperfection

A few years ago, I was perusing a photography magazine with a feature on how to take beautiful photographs of not-so-beautiful people. In the course of the article, a university study was quoted as demonstrating that people with completely symmetrical and slightly rounded faces were consistently chosen by participants as being the most attractive. Therefore, the article went on to say, we should photograph the subject in such a way that non-symmetrical elements are understated, and vary the angle and lighting such that the face appears more round.

Now, I’m not handsome by any stretch of the imagination, nor fashionable in the slightest. I seem to follow the Indiana Jones school of fashion sense, but much to the chagrin of my significant other, I bear no ressemblance at all to Harrison Ford. After reading the article, then staring at myself in the mirror, I was suddenly struck by the lack of symmetry and roundness in my face. I had never noticed it before, at least in the context of beauty (or my lack thereof). I then began to pay more attention to the features of the more aesthetically attractive people around me, noting that the article had some basis in truth.

But, I thought, is beauty a thing so shallow that following a few simple rules will allow one to calculate it?

I had always wondered what I found so alluring about bonsai trees. For a while, I was under the impression that here was a tree, in miniature, upon a table within a house, shaped not solely by nature but also by human intervention. Now, however, I think I understand better why bonsais, and most Japanese and Eastern art, appeal to me on a more fundamental level. It’s not about beauty in perfection, as proposed by the ancient Greeks, but rather in imperfection, especially that cultivated by nature. (And that includes ourselves.)

The Western World falls prey to the notion of living up to an impossible standard, wherein we strive to be gods and goddesses in our appearance, mannerisms, work and speech. No wonder we stress so much about how we look and conduct ourselves. Failing to achieve this impossibility serves to dash our egos, shake our esteem, and even colour the way in which we perceive others. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating system that can drive us to despair, if we let it.

As usual, many people –far wiser than I– in the Eastern World have long ago seen the folly in this. The Japanese term is wabi-sabi (not to be confused with wasabi), and this idea descends from the teachings of early Zen masters. The three most important precepts:

All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.

It’s not about spackling on the perfect face in the morning, or properly enunciating each syllable with the voice of an orator and the forethought of a strategist. Nor is it about outlaying each second to its proper task, or standing tall above the crowd, lest its mundane ways sully your air. It is the acceptance of humility, nature, and simple pleasures. It is the joy in a young child’s irregular smile, missing a tooth, or a refreshing sip of ice water on a sultry summer night.

Nothing lasts forever, nothing will ever be perfect, and nothing will ever be finished. I need to remember this.

There is something about spending time in the forest that makes me think of such things. Sitting on a fallen tree and stroking a faithful dog, listening to the swallows and watching the shadows dance across the ferns and moss, I feel like there is no difference between my self and my surroundings. The peace can be inhaled from the pure breeze and one’s stress melted away like snow in the warm sun. At times like that, it’s easy to find beauty in all the life around me… symmetrical or not.

Howe Forest