What if, instead of viewing conflict as something that leaves permanent cracks and breaks in our relationships, we viewed those fault lines as testament to what the relationship has weathered? What if, instead of trying to ignore or hide the damage, we revered it, understanding that “as good as new” is a misguided goal?
Artist Teresita Fernández was walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art when her attention was caught by a broken piece of Greek pottery from 487 BC. Known as an ostracon, this piece of discarded pottery got a second life in Greek society for use in voting. Greek citizens would choose a piece of broken pottery from a pile, write their candidate choice on it, and cast their vote by throwing it in a pile to be counted later.
Captivated by the shard in the museum, Fernández mused that while we are conditioned to think of something broken as a loss or a setback, here before her was an exquisite example of something broken that had transformed into something valuable.
There is a mending tradition in Japan, called kintsugi, that embraces this idea. Kintsugi, which means “to patch with gold,” is the art of mending broken pottery with resin mixed with gold. Instead of treating the break as something to hide, tea masters treat the repair with reverance, as part of the object’s history. Observes Fernández,
Often, we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the repair and make it “good as new.” But the tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to “good as new” and instead employ a “better than new” aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself.
When the fault lines of conflict show up in a relationship, we have this idea that resolution must somehow make things as good as new. Sometimes we even demand that the other make us whole again. Of course, this is impossible, really.
When we aim for “as good as new,” and to be made whole, we set ourselves up for failure and for dissatisfaction with almost any resolution that can be found. There is no cure that can erase the remnants of damage done. Traces of our pain, of the distrust that gnawed our souls, of fear that it could happen again — those traces live in the recesses of our minds, a trickle of unease that haunts us.
And when we aim for “as good as new,” we inadvertently diminish the flaws that make our relationship unique — make us unique, one of a kind, imperfectly special.
It is essential, I think, that when we try to mend relationship conflict, we adopt a philosophy akin to kintsugi: Conflict resolution as the art of transforming relationships not by ignoring and hiding the fault lines, but by revering and illuminating them.
Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively...By Peter T. Coleman