This story is so poignant -- the little velveteen rabbit who becomes Real because a little boy loves him. You may recall in Margery Williams' book that real is spelled with a capital R, as if to imbue the word with religious meaning. Real. The story begins in the nursery, with a sly class commentary as the mechanized toys look down their metallic noses at the old-fashioned toys like the Skin Horse and the stuffed bunny. They have moving parts and operate on switches and batteries. The rabbit has no parts at all. He operates on imagination.
Recall, too, that the Velveteen Rabbit is not the favorite toy immediately. It is only because the little boy's actual favorite, the china dog, cannot be found one night, that his nurse tucks the boy in with the Velveteen Rabbit, who subsequently becomes this constant companion. As sweet as the story is, it is not as sentimental as it may seem at first glance. It is not a romance but a parable with one simple lesson: We cannot become Real unless we have been loved and been hurt.
We all know many versions of this story -- the creature who longs to become Real. Pinnochio, the little wooden doll who longs to become a real boy. He does... and he gets hurt on the way to his happy ending. The little mermaid, mythological maiden of the sea, who longs to be a girl with legs so she can marry her prince (sorry gang, but in the original version, she doesn't get the Disney happy ending and dies… winding up as foam on the sea). And of course the Christmas story, which, it could be said, is another story about becoming Real -- about a distant God who wants to be born into the world and to experience life as a human being, and who also becomes Real through experiencing both love and the suffering of deep wounds to body and spirit.
I think of the musical, "The Fantasticks," about a boy and a girl who fall in pretty-perfect-romantic love in Act One, and who, in Act II, go out and experience the real world, get hurt, and who come back together at the end less pretty, definitely less perfect, and far more authentically in love than they were at the beginning. The narrator sings, "Deep in December it's nice to remember without a hurt the heart is hollow. . . "
So here we are, deep in December. My message is simple: the world is providing the hurt to make us more Real, as usual. How can we provide the love?
The other day I was in the parking lot of one of the nurseries up on Route 53 (the kind that sells plants, not the kind that takes care of children). I was buying a gift for my friends Amy and Tim who had been taking care of my dog during what a particularly busy week for me. So I have this evergreen swag in my hand and this very pretty woman all done up in matching down vest and hat and gloves, with boots that cost more than most families pay for a month's worth of groceries, and carrying a Coach bag, strikes up a conversation with me. Can she see the swag, oh isn't it pretty, but you know what, I can get one exactly like it at Trader Joe's for half the price. I say "Really?" and she says, "YES!" and says "Come here, I'll show you!" So we go out to her car -- which is a Cadillac Escalade-- and she triumphantly waves these two swags at me. "$5.95 each!"
And we chat a little bit and I'm paying particularly close attention because quite frankly, it's very unusual for this type of gal to be the one who strikes up an impromptu conversation with me. They always seem to be rushing off somewhere with a cup of coffee in hand and a cell phone to their ear, and I’m …. well, on this day I’m wearing a black fake fur hat with ears on it. Let’s just say I’ve lived in Norwell long enough to know that for whatever reason, women like this don’t usually talk to me on purpose, so I'm getting a kick out of this unusual encounter. I wonder what a woman of such obvious affluence is doing bargain hunting in the first place? But then I notice that my new acquaintance seems both kind of nervous and kind of sad. Actually, what she looks is slightly scared. It occurs to me that maybe she isn't used to comparison-shopping and neither is she used to striking up conversations with strangers. I wonder if she's been affected in a significant way by the recession but I don't want to pry, so after a little more chit-chat I go my way and she goes hers.
But I think about our encounter for the rest of the day. Maybe she was trying to make a connection to which I could have responded more generously. I don't know. I have read in the newspapers that luxury shopping is so déclassé right now that the very wealthy are staying out of stores and doing their shopping by catalog, from the safety of their homes where no one will see them purchasing a $7000 cobra skin belt, or whatever it is. This is a very interesting spin on image and status management in hard times.
What is really going on? Everyone is coping in their own way, and it's hard to tell. We know how to assess when people are literally in need (they’re hungry, they need shelter, etc.), but there's a lot of spiritual and moral need out there, too. People's identities are at stake. "Who am I if I have to shop at Target instead of Bloomingdale's? Or if I have to shop at Wal-Mart instead of Target?
“What kind of self-image will I have if I work retail instead of at a corporate job? What will my friends think? How will my marriage survive a move to a two-bedroom condo when we've lived in a four-bedroom, two-study house with walk-in closets and his-and-her bathrooms for the past twenty years? How will my brother-in-law, who works in the auto industry, feel if I get that promotion? I know my sister's job is in jeopardy, should I still expect to exchange gifts with her this holiday? Will I insult her if I bring it up? "
These fears, as trivial as they may seem to some, need to be responded to with love. That's our job.
You hear things like the Wal-Mart employee being trampled to death on so-called Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, and it may cross your mind that when push comes to shove (and in this case literally), human beings are nasty characters. You think, thank God for the contrivances of manners and customs that reign in our naturally savage natures. You think, when times get bad, people get worse, and I’m staying home. If getting hurt is part of what makes us Real and authentic, and this is how people behave when they’re at they’re most authentic, I want to steer clear of all of it.
You could indeed say this, and I wouldn’t blame you.
Except that our lives in religious community should have been preparing us to be present not only to those we love and know during times of stress and strain, but to strangers as well. We should be people who can handle Real however it manifests, because ideally, we have our own selves been held and embraced in our authenticity and Realness as an active participant in a church community.
Let me qualify that a little bit. I’m not saying that we let it all hang out here with no boundaries and no brakes, because that isn’t true. I’m saying that as far as any human institution goes, we make a sincere effort to make space for the authentic life experience here, together. Some of our pain we share even with a smile and all dressed up for Sunday, we still share it and some of our pain we bear silently and secretly, but everyone know it’s there because everyone has got some. We affirm that fact often enough when we are together. In this house of worship we both welcome the new baby and say goodbye to the bodies that wear out and die. We declare that both of those events are sacred. Here, we admit that we are not in control. We do not try to understand every world event but we do try to witness, in peace and in human solidarity, to the worth of the human struggle.
Remember that what made the Velveteen Rabbit Real wasn’t the crisis that he endured in being almost burned up in the bonfire and losing his little boy, it happened when he was loved, and it happened when he felt the pain of loving.
I am stressing here that there is a cost to all of this, which is why it takes serious spiritual courage to achieve being Real. There is no nursery fairy to wave a wand and do it for us: it is our own desire, our own need and the grace of God that makes it happen. Being Real not only hurts, it takes away our shiny veneers. After all, hadn't the Velveteen Rabbit lost his whiskers? Hadn't his nose worn away, and the pink sateen lining of his ears turned dingy gray? By the time he got Real, he was barely distinguishable as a rabbit to other rabbits. He was pretty much an amorphous blob. He had become the blob none of us wants to be, the shopper striking up an out-of-character conversation with a stranger in a silly hat, the unemployed father with greasy, unwashed hair who won't come to church "looking like that," because he mistakenly believes he'll depress everyone else, the overburdened woman who won't make the phone call to someone from her congregation because "she doesn't want to dump on anyone." Remember that the more the Rabbit experienced being in relationship instead of sitting safely on a shelf, the more blobby he got. Remember that the boy found him beautiful.
"Does it hurt?" the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse.
Yes, it hurts.
But we wouldn't have it any other way, we velveteen rabbits in the same cosmic nursery. The alternative is to live untouched, untransformed, and sadly unused in the task for which we were made.
We began with rabbits and let us close with birds, in an image by a 14th century Sufi:
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they're given wings.
I wish you the love that makes us all Real. May it always be worth the hurting.