Becoming Real: Lessons from The Velveteen Rabbit
In 1922, Margery Williams published The Velveteen Rabbit: How Toys Become Real, one of the great children’s books of the 20th century. The hero of the story is a simple toy velveteen bunny, stuffed with sawdust. The rabbit was a simple toy, often made to feel inferior by the other more modern toys. The mechanical toys, in particular, “full modern modern ideas” were quite superior and the little rabbit was often made to feel very simple and commonplace. He had no “rigging,” mechanical parts, and didn’t wind up. The poor little rabbit was only stuffed with sawdust and, we are told, “he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles.”
G.K. Chesterton once remarked, tongue in cheek, that were fairy tales properly understood, we should require no creeds or dogmas. He might well have been speaking of The Velveteen Rabbit, because for all the smug superiority and pretense of the more “modern” toys, they are not real and never will be.
The one toy that was kind to the velveteen rabbit, the skin horse, quite understands this and tries to explain this thing called “real” to the confused bunny. “Real,” the skin horse, explains, doesn’t mean having wind-up parts, a handle that sticks out, or other mechanical devices. Indeed, “real” doesn’t describe how you are made at all, but rather “is a thing that happens to you.” Toys are not made real, they become so.
The little rabbit is naturally curious about “real” and how one becomes so, and the skin horse tells him, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." Concerned, the velveteen rabbit asks if becoming real hurts, and the skin horse, always truthful, answers that it sometimes does, but that "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." By that time, most of your hair is gone, your eyes have dropped out, and you become very shabby looking.
This is why more modern toys so rarely become real. They break too easily, have to be carefully kept, and sooner or later “pass away.”
In short, they cannot suffer the wounds of love. For all their modern pretensions, modern ideas, shiny exteriors, and mechanical parts, they cannot (usually) become real.
So much of the Gospel seems expressed in this simple story. Of course, we are already real in the sense that we exist and are alive. And yet, as human beings, we enter this world with fallen natures. In a sense, we also have to “become real,” that is, to become the people that God made us to be–His beloved sons and daughters. Our “becoming real” process is not an easy one. Like the skin horse said, becoming real can hurt. In our fallen world, it often will. Our Lord tells us to take up our crosses, to crucify the “old man” within us, our illicit desires, fears, and fallen natures.
Hence, our becoming real will hurt. Love often does. Turning from our own fallen wills and submitting to the love of God, will hurt. Like the velveteen rabbit, we may be tempted, at first, to shy away from the pain of that love. We may not, initially understand, that when one loves, one doesn’t mind the hurt.
This is why the modern world, like the modern toys of Williams’ story, has such a hard time “becoming real.” So much of the modern world is predicated on avoiding suffering or pain of every sort. This is why our world is suffering such epidemics of drug abuse, gambling, even addiction to smartphones. Even the simple suffering of a few moments of boredom is beyond us. A disordered sense of freedom as the ability to follow our own fallen wills hurts us. It is easier for a rich man to pass the eye of a needle, than enter the kingdom of heaven. The riches or modern world mask a terrible spiritual poverty: the spiritual poverty of a world that cannot submit to the love of God.
One of the greatest obstacles we can face is both one of the most modern, but also the oldest of temptations: the sin of pride. It was pride, the desire to be like God, by which Adam and Eve fell from paradise and by which the devil fell from heaven. It was the pride of the more modern, mechanical, superior toys that caused them to pretend to be real already, scorning the sawdust-filled velveteen rabbit. But, exultavet humiles, it was the simple rabbit, become real in the end. He became real because he was under no illusions; he knew he wasn’t real and needed love to make him so.
What is true of the toys in William’s Velveteen Rabbit is true for us as well. Born in a fallen world, we also need help becoming real. We cannot become so on our own and only through the outside love of God can we ourselves become real. We are to submit ourselves to that love, without pretension and with whatever pain it brings, while also knowing that only in that divine love do we ourselves have any hope of finally becoming real.
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