Wabi-Sabi: Nursing and the Art of Brokenness

Wabi-Sabi (Kintsugi), watercolor and acrylic on paper, 2018 by Julianna Paradisi

Nursing is the art of healing, which ironically also makes it an art of brokenness. We pack and bind wounds. We administer medications to cure disease. We offer interventions for the side effects caused by the medication administered to cure.

We work in a health care system which, despite our best intentions, is broken: not enough resources, not enough staff or providers, not enough health care to go around for everyone.

Nurses have broken areas within ourselves too, but our work environments expect us to perform as perfectly as possible, amidst the brokenness of our patients, the brokenness of health care.

Patients, physicians, other departments, and hospital administrators expect nurses will fix problems, whatever they are, despite the brokenness.

A timely example this flu season is the paradoxical message: “Don’t come to work sick,” coupled with the implication, “Your sick call leaves us understaffed.”

The answer to brokenness is wholeheartedness.

The effort to fix the brokenness or imperfection of nursing and health care may be particularly exhausting for nurses because we are directly responsible for the safety of our patients.

The words of author David Whyte as he recounts a wise friend’s advice elegantly express one possible response to the existential conundrum we find at the heart of nursing:

. . . The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. . . . The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You’re exhausted because you can’t be wholehearted at what you’re doing . . . .

Wabi-sabi: appreciating the imperfect.

Constant exposure to brokenness inhibits wholeheartedness. In my quest to maintain wholeheartedness, I’ve begun learning about wabi-sabi, an ancient Japanese philosophy rooted in Buddhism. It’s the proper name for an aesthetic I’ve unknowingly practiced most of my life: an appreciation of the imperfect. Outwardly, the human body is one obvious example, but so are the imperfections we carry inside of us: impatience, grumpiness, anxiety, dependency, or lack of confidence.

When imperfections become visible at work.

Nursing, as a profession, has a tendency to push its own beyond our ability to protect areas of personal brokenness, leaving them exposed for coworkers to see, and perhaps discuss with others. There’s no HIPAA-like protection for a nurse’s character flaws in a nursing unit. In a hostile work environment, these flaws become a wound others are compelled to stick their ungloved fingers into, metaphorically speaking.

It’s a puzzlement how nurses who routinely go out of their way to show compassion for patients can quickly become bullies, honing in on the weaknesses of coworkers. A related behavior is the nurse who promotes his or her needs above the team’s, creating frequent, personal dramas burdening coworkers to rally and support them in the midst of performing their patient care duties. When a nursing unit has either personality type, there’s trouble. When there’s one of each personality in a unit, it becomes an unbearable work environment.

Beautifully mending what’s broken.

Wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in brokenness, our own and that of others, be they patients or coworkers. When we accept the brokenness in others, we are not bullies. When we accept the brokenness inside ourselves, we create less drama.

One application of wabi-sabi, called “kintsugi,” is a technique of beautifully mending broken objects. A broken family heirloom, such as a porcelain bowl passed down for generations, is mended back together with golden epoxy and not discarded. Applying this principle to broken relationships within a nursing unit is challenging, but not impossible.

For instance, years ago, a former colleague made a simple change in our unit. In the role of charge nurse, when she received a sick call, she said to the nurse calling in, “I hope you feel better soon.” That was all. No guilt-inducing remark about how short her absence would leave the shift, no interrogation about specific symptoms, just a simple acceptance of a nurse’s need to take care of herself. This small gesture of kindness became the golden epoxy binding a crack in our fractured unit. I was so impressed the first time she supported my own sick call this way, I adopted her method too.

Things as they are.

Is the realization that some broken areas in nursing and health will never mend during my tenure—and perhaps never in the future either—a function of middle age, or were my expectations too high from the outset? No matter; I refuse to surrender my wholeheartedness, my passion for helping others. So I seek beauty in the brokenness, my own, in others, and in nursing, filling in the cracks with gold epoxy whenever possible.


About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of https://jparadisirn.com/, and also blogs frequently for http://www.theonc.org/ and https://ajnoffthecharts.com/, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).

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