The Cost of Being “Real”

This week I’ve been thinking back on the books I loved most when I was a little girl as I tried to decide on a gift for the son of a couple of dear friends. Stuart Little, Le Petit Prince, Rikki Tikki Tavi were some of the first that came to mind–stories of spirited adventures and courage, all of them fun and wise in their own ways. And then last night, with the nostalgia of childhood fantasy still swirling around in my brain, I dreamt of a favorite stuffed toy, “Bunny,” as I had imaginatively named him, which I had received along with a picture book when I was quite small.

Bunny had been my constant companion. I dragged him on road trips and to sleepovers, insisted he be at my side whether I was taking a bath or making mud pies. Poor bunny had to endure many cycles in the washing machine and was eventually left behind in a hotel room on a Disney vacation when I was four or five, causing possibly my first experience of grief.

While I do have vague memories of my mother reading me the book that had accompanied my favorite toy, “Bunny” has tended to overshadow much reflection on the actual story. But this morning,  with hints of my dream still lingering, I found myself googling for plot points and illustrations, eventually stumbling on the following quote:

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Reading this excerpt, I felt the familiarity of the words so often experienced in childhood–rote memorization of the sounds and cadences largely empty of meaning–along with the subtle newness that comes when one discovers a way to articulate something felt but not often put into words.

This feeling of wanting to be known, to be “real” as the rocking horse says, while being simultaneously afraid of the cost is one that has been with me as long as I can remember. In Buddhist terms, we could talk about this feeling as the longing that is born from not recognizing the barriers we erect between ourselves and others . We cling to definite, solidified conceptions of ego to fiercely defend the line between ourselves and others. In so doing, it becomes necessary to focus on what makes us different, farther apart, from our fellow human beings, rather than what we share as equal inhabitants of the human condition. At times, I catch myself digging my heels in to defend myself against those whom I love the most, only to realize a few moments later that there was no need, that this person was not trying to invade and change me but, rather just extending a hand through an invisible barrier that only I can see to invite me outside of my narrow world out to play in the expanse of possibility.

In this expanse, I can no longer pretend that I have any control over whether I will be hurt, how I will be perceived, where my path will lead. It’s scary to think of giving up on this illusion of control–after all, I’ve planned, manipulated, and self-sabotaged throughout my entire life as a way of coping with the anxiety of a constantly changing existence in which pain, rejection, and the unknown is always just a heartbeat away.  But of course, the other side to this coin is that so long as I try to micro-manage, to control what is outside my control, I forfeit the bliss of losing myself in  the bliss of connection, of being generous of myself, not just to those dearest to me but also to the world itself.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” says the rocking horse. How terrifying, whispers a tiny voice as I breathe in. Oh, but what a relief, soothes a steadier, “real” voice as I breathe out.




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