Beautiful Broken Things

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My boy’s shell haul

My three-year-old son loves picking up seashells. He combs the beach with laser precision, able to spot a treasure no matter how obscured or buried it may be. And he procures them with gusto, gleefully exclaiming, “here’s an awesome one!”

Last week we made our annual family trek to the beach, so pretty much every day, he and I trawled the shoreline looking for shells.

But after the first day or so, I began to notice something. While I searched for perfect specimens–symmetrical shells with no breaks or holes or other blemishes–my son was a bit less discriminating. Actually, it was like he was intentionally trying to pick up the gnarliest, most pitiful shells he could find.

“Look at this one,” I called to him, holding up a pristine white oyster shell.

He studied it for a second and then held up a broken piece of a similar shell, “But check this one out!”

At first, I would reply in the affirmative just to humor him, but after a while, I started to realize something. The shells he was choosing actually were awesome.

Yeah, they were broken or oddly shaped or full of holes. But they were interesting. Different. Weird. My bucket full of perfectly-shaped, flawless shells was pretty, but it was also boring. I could find the exact same assemblage inside a lamp at the beach house, or in a prepackaged bag at a gift shop.

Whereas his was filled with cool colors, textures and shapes–splashes of purple and amber, the juxtaposition of jagged edges alongside sea-smoothed curves, shells that looked more like moon rocks than sea life, riddled with hundreds of tiny holes.

These shells told a story. They hadn’t arrived on the shore in one piece. They’d lost their inhabitants. They’d been battered, beaten and carried who knows how far by the currents, rolled up and down the beach as storms and tides stirred them up from the sea floor.

As I watched my son marvel over these imperfect pieces, I began to see the beauty in broken things. The uneven, misshapen things. The not-quite-right things. The battered and scarred things.

We get so caught up searching for perfection–the right haircut, the perfectly-shaped breasts, the thin thighs, the flat stomachs, the smooth skin–that we miss the utter, distinctive beauty right in front of our asymmetrical faces.

Those imperfections tell our story–who we are, where we came from, what we’ve been through. They make us interesting. They make us individuals. And whether we choose to believe it or not, they make us beautiful.

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