Friday, June 16, 2017

Kintsugi and Being Voted Most Likely to Succeed

I donned white jeans and a red turtleneck in that photograph. Standing next to Jeff Ponatoski, at the main entrance of a high rise building in downtown Louisville, we smiled for a picture we knew would be in the yearbook with the title "Most Likely to Succeed." 

Twenty-three years later, as I am clawing and clamoring my way out of the toughest 12 months I've ever lived, I am amused at my 18-year old self. What in the world did I know of success?

When one graduates from high school, all plucky and energetic, one may believe they know a lot. But they don't. Even though they think they do.

I thought I knew what it meant to be successful.

I was a straight-A student, president of the National Honor Society, a Governor's scholar, and headed to a private college on academic scholarships. I was a rule follower, a conscientious learner, and I never skipped college chapel to sleep in. I graduated from university with honors, despite the best effort of that semester of Macro Economics that tried to bring me down. I did the right things, said the right things, behaved the right ways. 

The world will take notice when you do all the right things the expected way. Enough notice to lull you into the belief that you are on your way to success.

But what happens when life comes crashing down around you? 
When you are burned out and wiped out professionally? 
When you live in a city that desensitizes you to dysfunction? 
When death comes for a visit and leaves an ache that won't stop? 
When what you thought you knew doesn't seem to be what you are sure of anymore?
When you are at a loss because of the amount of loss you've experienced? 

Either I have crashed and burned on the fast track to success or I need a new definition.

Maybe success isn't what I thought it was at all.

Maybe the definition and measure of success should be fluid and contextual. Maybe it isn't what the world decides is laudable. Maybe success is more rebel and rule breaker, not packaged neat and nice. Maybe success would actually frighten that starry-eyed, line-tower in white jeans standing next to Jeff Ponatoski.

Maybe success is a little more subjective than I thought. At least in the sense that succeeding is highly variable depending on the particular circumstance, the priorities, the pressure points, and the unique person.

By most standards, this last year I would have succeeded only in failing to live up to that superlative title, "Most Likely to Succeed."

I've earned no accolades this year. I've walked the blackness of burn-out and depression. Instead of going by the book, my husband and I have thrown it out, and broken away from what "normal" mid-life parents should be doing. We've given up certainty. We've walked away from vocational identity. We've grieved. We've seen the worst of ourselves. We've questioned what we believe and why we believe it. And we've sat among the broken apart pieces of the life we've lived so far and wondered what good could come of it all.

Broken. Completely. 

Success? Most unlikely. 

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

There's an ancient Japanese art form known as Kintsugi, which means "golden joinery or repair." Kintsugi artists repair broken pottery with lacquer that is mixed with powered gold, silver, or platinum. 

What's most fascinating about Kintsugi has less to do with the work itself, although great skill is required, and more to do with the philosophy behind the art. Kintsugi "treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise."

If life has ever broken you down, left you holding the fragments of your dreams, of your known life, of your tidy beliefs, then you can understand the pure hope that resides in the idea of Kintsugi.

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

What if success isn't about perfection, or achievement, or recognition? What if success has more to do with letting go then maintaining control? What if the whole of success is only found in embracing the breaking of our own humanness?

I have walked through some moments of sheer hell this last year. Some have been external while many have been inner devils. I have walked to the brink of hope, unsure I would see sunlight of the soul again. I have cried a million tears (this is only slightly hyperbolic). I have questioned my sanity, my salvation, my security, my sense of self. And I was certain there was no room to claim success in any of it.

I'm a far cry from that baby-faced, naive girl I used to be. A far cry from what I believed success to be.

Maybe success looks entirely different than I once believed.      

If you have ever succumb to the lie that success is:
only defined by the people in power or the ones with privilege,
only comes when you tow the line and don't rock the boat, 
earned when you do what you're told, and don't ask too many questions,
adhering to the rules, meeting the expectations of everyone else,
walking through the stages of grief in predictable and manageable ways,

and yet find your soul withering, 
and find you are at the end of yourself, 
and everything feels like it's in pieces...

then, only then, can the golden repair begin.

What if success isn't a shellac that fossilizes our heart so that we never crack under pressure? What if success isn't a perfected image, or a flawless performance? What if success is best seen in every gold-filled crack and silver-lined fracture? What if success has more to do with embracing the imperfections, and allowing the brokenness to help define our beauty? What if success isn't about what we've done, but who we become?

I am beginning to understand success has more to do with what results in the midst of the struggle, the strength revealed in the vulnerable places, and the artistry of God who brings beauty from brokenness, and offers renewed hope to one who's been beaten down, burned out, and washed up.

I am also beginning to understand that choosing to define success this way is to embrace the harder, deeper, more sacred meaning of success. The one that has more to do with who Jesus is, than what I've accomplished. The one  that leans hard on the graces of this life because we recognize our inability to deliver perfection. The definition that says my once-shattered-now-golden-repaired heart is more lovely today than before it all broke apart.

Maybe, just maybe, in the golden patch lines and highlighted broken spaces, I might find success most likely to happen after all.

 "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come..."
2 Corinthians 5:17a

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show 
that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." 
2 Corinthians 4:7


  1. Wonderful post, Niki. What a great picture of how God takes our broken pieces and makes them better. Under the mercy, sweet sister. Love you!

  2. Beautiful! Love this analogy, your transparency. Well done.