I’m proud to offer a powerful guest post this week from my friend and colleague Cheryl Hunter – author, speaker and transformational coach whose personal story is both riveting and deeply inspiring.
When contrasted against the backdrop of urban sprawl and the fight we face for a sliver of square footage in the city, it’s almost unimaginable that places exist where there is nothing but empty space. Rye, Colorado, is one of those places.
I grew up on a horse ranch there, in the remote Rocky Mountains. We lived atop a high mountain meadow and were so remote that in every direction but one—miles off in the distance—there was no sign of civilization whatsoever.
I loved it; it was idyllic, and I spent my entire childhood atop a horse, but what had once been my haven had become my prison by the time I was a teenager. I longed for civilization, culture, buildings. I wanted to live someplace where I could wear the clothes I saw in magazines—anything other than boot cut Wranglers, really—and I longed to go somewhere where there were people who weren’t related to me by blood. The city was calling my name; I just had to figure out how to respond.
One day I played hooky to come up with my master plan. I hopped on my mini bike and drove the hour round trip to Colorado City—the nearest town that had a store—and I picked up a Glamour magazine. Sure enough, there was an article in there that spelled out the game plan for my life right before my eyes: I could be a model! I was tall enough—I was already on the boys’ basketball team.
I just needed to get myself somewhere they needed models. I chose Europe. I talked my best friend into going; we got several jobs each and saved up…and the big day finally arrived.
No sooner did we land in France then a man with a big camera around his neck approached me. He asked me if I was a model; he told me he could make me one, if I went with him and his friend.
I thought, “Wow! This is how easy it is to become a model in France!”
My best friend told me no, but she was content to go back to Colorado when we were through; she had no desire to get out of there. So I ditched her and went off with the man with the camera and his friend.
They drugged me and took me to an abandoned construction site. They beat me mercilessly. I had no idea a head could make a sound when kicked by boots. They drugged me again and they raped me repeatedly, and they cut me.
They dumped me in a park in Nice three days later.
I didn’t tell my family; I didn’t tell my friends; I couldn’t. I was now ruined; I was dirty and disgusting and damaged and filthy. If anyone knew what happened they’d know all that about me, so I decided to just push it down and pretend it never happened.
To cope I became very removed from people and aloof. I became a loner.
I did become a model—the lifestyle suited me really well. Never in all of the years that I was a model did anyone ever ask me to engage in a deep conversation. I had found my people.
The concept of “the grass is always greener somewhere else” is thriving in the modeling world; each of my agents wanted me to go somewhere else to work because it was looked upon as cooler than wherever we were currently. My agent in Paris sent me to New York, Milan sent me to Paris, London sent me to Japan.
It was in Japan that my journey took a turn.
Other than when I was actually shooting, I spent the entirety of my stay in Japan in my agency itself; it had a big, completely unused conference room. No one was ever there, except for the grandparents of the owners. They have an interesting tradition in Japan; they include their elders in their business and personal lives; the elders are looked upon as a resource for the wealth of experience and knowledge they bring.
One day I was sitting in the conference room, lost in thought as usual, plotting my revenge against the two men in France.
As I daydreamed, I absentmindedly traced my fingers along the large, wooden table that was in the conference room. The table was probably ten feet long and carved from one solid piece of wood. It was beautiful, but it contained nicks and divots and dents. The eyes of the wood had been left in and one end of the table narrowed as the tree must have.
I was tracing one of the table’s dents with my fingers as the grandmother walked in the conference room and watched.
“Wabi-sabi,” she said, shocking me out of my stupor.
“What? What’s that?” I asked, “wabi-sabi? Is that like wasabi?”
From the other room, Miyoko, my agent, put her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and laughed, “No!” Wabi-sabi is the Japanese aesthetic, Hon.”
“Oh…” I said, having absolutely no idea what she meant.
Soon Miyoko and her grandfather came in and joined us.
The three of them took turns telling me their version of what wabi-sabi means; according to the grandfather it is “The most important of all Japanese principle.”
Wabi-sabi states that the beauty of any object lies in the flaws of that object. The misshapen parts, the errors and mistakes are actually sought out.
Beauty, the grandmother said, is derived from contrast. So an object can only be seen to embody perfection if it also embodies imperfection to the same degree.
These people were blowing my mind. I got up and ran out of there to clear my head and take a walk. As I walked I wondered, “Did this mean that the principle of wabi-sabi could even apply to…me?”
No, I decided; that was impossible.
I walked for a while, then stopped in a busy outdoor café for lunch. I grabbed my French fries and soda at the counter and sat outside to read my book.
Within moments I heard shouting.
I looked up to see a disheveled-looking woman sitting alone at a table across from me. She was shouting, “Naze! Senso Nihon,” and she was staring straight at me.
I looked around—certain I was mistaken—but there was no denying it, she was directing her words to me. I fidgeted and looked nervously around. A man at the next table leaned in and said, “She asked why. Why you make war on Japan?”
I didn’t make war on Japan!
I am a teenager!
I am not some 60-year-old dude with an army uniform; I am not the president! I hate war, too!
I looked back to my book and tried to pretend the whole thing wasn’t happening.
She continued, “Naze. Senso Nihon! Senso Nihon!”
The woman then took a little cloth envelope out of one of her bags; she carefully unwrapped it. It held two little tattered black-and-white photographs; one was a man, the other was a woman.
She held the photos above her head and started shouting again. This time there was no ignoring her; she was sobbing as she shouted and every person in the restaurant was silent, staring at the two of us.
The man at the next table leaned in once again and said, “She asks why. Why you kill her parents?”
That was it; I’d had enough. I slammed my book closed and started to gather my belongings. Who did this woman think I was? I didn’t kill her parents! She was crazy and that was all there was to it. In the middle of grabbing my things I looked up and saw that she was crying so hard that snot was bubbling over her mouth as she shouted. Then I accidentally caught her eye.
In her eyes I saw the confusion, the bewilderment, the fury. I looked deeper and saw the outrage she felt as well as her inability to express it. I saw the hurt and the anger and the despair and the deep, dark pit of her aloneness and I no longer saw a crazy woman; I saw me.
Everyone continued to stare; they were rapt with attention. I set down my belongings and bowed to the woman.
She stopped shouting and became silent.
When I finally raised my head I said the only words that made sense: wabi-sabi.
Everyone remained silent; I reverently assembled my belongings, bowed to them all. Everyone—young and old alike—bowed back.
I used to pray that wabi-sabi was real, and that it could somehow apply to me. For a while I thought in order to be anything other than damaged I’d have to live in Japan for the rest of my life.
Now I know differently.
If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that wabi-sabi is real. You are magnificent, and what makes you magnificent is everything you’ve previously believed is wrong with you.
I leave you with my deepest wish: that you recognize your beauty; that you know your magnificence; that you claim your wabi-sabi.
For more information about Cheryl Hunter, watch her TEDx Talk Wabi-sabi: The Magnificence of Imperfection, visit www.cherylhunter.com. and read her take on Forbes on the 8 Essential Resilience Behaviors That Help You Recover and Thrive After Trauma and Suffering.
(For more about career success and growth, follow me on Twitter, and check out my Amazing Career Project, Career Success Training monthly program, and my book Breakdown, Breakthrough.)