“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 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 all 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.”
This extract, from one of my most adored children’s books, was read at a wedding I attended recently. It’s an extract that I know so well – as familiar as the lyrics of Harvest Moon, or the entire dialogue of The Odd Couple, or Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliott in Persuasion. These words are all ingrained in my brain; are part of my being – they are where I retreat to for comfort; they are where I find joy; they are what make me real.
Hearing this particular extract on this day had such an extraordinary effect on me. Perhaps it was the emotion of the occasion that invited the tears. Perfectly reasonable, but, I have not been able to shake these words from my mind since.
There seems to have been a synchronicity between the concepts so beautifully crafted in the extract, to some thoughts that I have been pondering lately.
The story of the Velveteen Rabbit describes the process of a toy rabbit ‘becoming real’ through being loved. Truly loved. Effectively, love equals reality and being real equals being loved. I suppose I have been puzzling over the ideas of love and reality, particularly how we are able to identify when something is real and therefore when it is love. Can we experience one without the other?
How do we know when we ‘experience’ love, if it is real or not? Of course, there are clues we have been conditioned to look for. Does he show me that he desires me? Does he treat me with kindness, respect and consideration? Does he seek to spend time in my company? Does he make me feel like nobody else can give him what he needs? Does he tell me all of the things he admires in me? Does he make plans for a future with me?
Even if all of those things are happening, and many more beyond, how do we know it is real? How can we tell if things are actually as they are, or if we are seeing them simply as we wish to see them? And what if we have been consciously or subconsciously misled (or indeed, we have misled ourselves)? Does that then make the feelings we experience unreal or somehow redundant?
Consider for a moment how you love another. How can we know that what we feel is real; how do we know our brains are not convincing us of how perfect for us that other person is, how much we desire them, want them, need them, simply to satisfy our need for love? Do we pretend? Do we ignore glaring issues and incompatibilities to sate our desire?
That’s a lot of questions, most of which have been whirring around my head of late. The reason, I suppose, is due to a crisis of confidence in my own judgment. Sure, we all doubt ourselves, but sometimes it is bigger than that. The Buddhist in me is more than a little shaken at this ‘black spot’ that has appeared in my usual clear sightedness. A conflict exists for me between what I know v’s what I think I know, and therefore, what I feel v’s what I think I feel.
A little context is required here. Let’s say that you meet someone. You spend so much time talking and getting to know them. There seem to be so many moments of synchronicity that you think that this connection cannot have been an accident, that somehow you have been destined to find each other. You continue to get to know them, to develop feelings and eventually believe yourself to be experiencing feelings of love.
But what if something happens that makes you doubt everything you thought you knew? What if you realise that you’re not sure if you actually did know that person as you thought. Does it then follow that the feelings you believed you harboured are now redundant given that they were based upon the ‘reality’ of knowing someone that you didn’t? Or, could it be that if an emotional reaction or response has occurred (whether based upon truth or not) then it must have been real by virtue of it having been experienced?
This brings me back to a notion I have held for a while now about love and happiness. Many people have disagreed with my position on this, but I’ve always thought that love is momentary. This is not to say that I don’t believe love can be lasting. I do. By this I mean that it can only be given and received and experienced in this moment. Our future does not exist. All any of us truly have is this moment we are in. Life is a continuation of subsequent moments, of ‘here’s and ‘now’s experienced one after another. We can profess love in this moment, and in this, and in this and so on.
If we accept that to be true, we must also accept that in any of those subsequent moments, anything can happen to change how we feel or to change our perception of what is true or real.
I have thought on this long and hard and I have come to the conclusion that even if something happens to change a connection, a love, a relationship – even if that thing challenges your own judgment or understanding of what you believed to be truth, if the moments that led up to that were filled with care and desire and hope and happiness and love – then that was real. If you felt it, if you experienced it, it was real.
As to the ‘Real’ that the Skin Horse talks of: maybe that kind of real comes when you have experienced enough moments of love, of what seem like an endless stream of ‘now’s, one after another, so many that you have ‘become’ – become part of the same soul. You accept that you only ever have this moment, but you have such a colourful and glorious catalogue of previous moments, you have agreed that you don’t want to experience another single subsequent one without loving the person who makes you real.