Hearts at Work

A Column by James Tipton

Becoming Real


velveteen-rabbitThoreau tells us that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived it.”  For Thoreau, nothing would be sadder than to arrive at the end of his life only to realize that he “had not lived it.”

Thoreau says we must “live deliberately,” conscious of (and responsible to) every action that we make. As we become more and more “awake,” we progressively release ourselves from the bondage (and consequences) that our own unconscious actions had formerly placed upon us. As we become more and more awake, we become more and more open to the divine that begins to blossom inside of us. 

Thoreau asks the question:  “If I do not live my life who or what will live it for me?” The “who” or “what” includes our parents, our politics, our religion, our society, even our gender, and too often our lives are lived in accordance with what those outside forces require rather than what the forces inside of us require.  All of those forces are lined up at our door and knocking hard. They have arrived to do us “good,” to return us to their comfortable fold.  Thoreau offers one response:  “If I knew for certain that someone were coming to my house to do me good, I would run for my life!”

All of these forces are insisting we must live our life their way.  Their way is the “real” way. The way of our own life, to them, is nothing substantial, is “unreal.”  Indeed, if we do not live our own lives, someone else or some institution will happily do it for us, to the very end.

Do you remember the children’s story by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit?  In this story a little boy is given a wonderful, soft, cuddly, stuffed animal, a velveteen rabbit.  Here is a passage where the toy rabbit is discussing life with the other toy animals:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you 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, 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 your 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.”

The Skin Horse adds, “…once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

In this charming story the velveteen rabbit becomes real because he is loved so much, and that love continues even after most of his “hair has been loved off” and he has become “loose in the joints.” Refusing to be “defined” by outside forces but remaining open to love, to both giving and receiving, is the road that takes us to the place we can call “Real”—Frost calls it “the road less traveled.”


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