The Gospel According to Velveteen, part 2: What Is REAL?

I read the letter, heart sinking with every line. Every phrase seemingly designed to push a specific bruise in my psyche, to maximize the pain. It was a written confirmation of every lie I’d spent years of therapy, prayer, and discussion trying to disbelieve:

Arrogant.

Pseudo-intellectual.

Poorly educated.

Lacking in servanthood.

Problematic.

Unfit.

As the letter finished, I was reminded of the several times in the past when people in power had overlooked, disregarded, or discarded me–when I’d been told I wasn’t wanted or needed.

I remembered the many conversations in college when “theology” professors and students scoffed at my–a lowly music major–presumption to join in their doctrinal discussions; of my music professors who recognized I was a mediocre musician and made sure I knew it.

I thought of the church who told me they were absolutely not interested in continuing my interim worship ministry into full-time and of the campus ministry that fired me because of my moral failings, believing the best way to save themselves from the infection of scandal was to cut off the offending limb.

Thought of the house church network that felt I was “too broken” for them to deal with and the second campus ministry who saw my beliefs as dangerous and likely to destroy the faith and salvation of their students.

And now a new group of spiritual leaders telling me I was utterly unfit and unnecessary to their work.

I wondered how many doors were required to slam in my face before I cut my losses. Wondered how much longer I could believe the myth that I was a tortured genius, misunderstood and ill-used, rather than simply self-deceived.

I wondered what it said about my mental health that I had these painful memories so readily accessible.

It seems these last couple years have been a lesson in just how broken it’s possible to become without ever undergoing direct catastrophe–how every time you think you’ve seen the last of rejection, another comes along, blindsiding you. A lesson in brokenness that seems to have yielded little to none of the positive character traits people (myself included) always tell others that such seasons produce.

Often I simply accept the Dread Pirate Roberts wisdom: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

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But still through the hurt there is hope. What change may be, even this tear-stained season, working within me? Within my family? Despite my depression and repeated failures, the disregard, distrust, and disinterest, still I wonder if this is preparatory time: that perhaps if I can just persevere, the Divine light will hallow the wounds and show how they fit the needs of the future. That perhaps the cracks “are how the light gets in.”

Last post, we read the Velveteen Rabbit’s question to the wise Skin Horse one dark night in the nursery, when he wanted to know the truth about this legend that toys can become REAL. Skin Horse tells him the nursery magic is no legend, that it is possible to become REAL. But, he warns, the process is long and painful, a result of being truly, deeply loved.

Pain is the result of deep love? Sounds like so many of the milquetoast responses to grief and suffering I’ve received from well-meaning but unthinking Christians: all things for the good . . . .

What about when things keep going wrong? When life is not joy punctuated by growth-inducing suffering but is rather consistent suffering punctuated by all-too-brief flashes of joy?

The Skin Horse goes on and Velveteen learns that becoming REAL is not a journey for the faint of heart, for those who, “Break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.” He learns that becoming REAL often leads to a breakdown of the self (or, in stuffed animal speak: “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”).

Naturally, he wished becoming REAL didn’t require such “uncomfortable things happening to him,” but at the same time, he had an intuition it might be worth it.

And then, it happened.

The Boy accidentally left him outside after a day of rough play and wouldn’t sleep until Nana went outside to find it. (And if she’s anything like me, probably cursing the child as she walked through the cold wet grass looking for a f#@!(**&^%$#*@^ stuffed animal.)

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She returned with her quarry, complaining about all this fuss over a toy, but the Boy insisted he was wasn’t a toy, but was REAL. Suddenly and with cutting clarity, the rabbit knew the nursery magic had worked. He had endured the painful process of becoming and was now REAL. As time went on, even Nana came to believe it, noticing wisdom and beauty growing in his button eyes.

You’ll find that even people who don’t believe in the magic can notice something different about the ones who have it.

But two things: first, Velveteen doesn’t seem to have thought this process was all that difficult. Sure, sometimes it was too warm under the Boy’s covers at night and maybe he grew a little frayed and faded from playing outside, but there was nowhere else he’d have rather been. He wasn’t being beaten but played with–he was fulfilling his purpose.

What do you do when it seems the suffering and grief you experience are not even going toward your purpose but are utterly extra, even senseless?

And second, whom do you trust? The official, unbiased and unvarnished opinions of those who have no reason to lie and every reason to look for flaws, or those who’ve loved your shine off?

The question seems pretty simple, right? Obviously, those who love you most ought to be trusted most–except they tend to be the ones most likely to be deceived by their love for you. Of course the Boy thought Velveteen was REAL: he spent every waking (and sleeping) moment with his toy. He played, talked to, and carried him everywhere. Obviously the Boy’s parents didn’t believe, and even Nana, though she thought he had “a rather knowing expression,” didn’t actually believe he was REAL.

So how was Velveteen to know?

Had he arrived? Had he become REAL?

What do you do when you think you’re REAL, only to suddenly be put against actual reality? What do you do when the progress you think you’ve made leaves you embarrassingly out of your depth?

What do you do when your suffering has left you shabby but otherwise unchanged–not better or holier or more loving–just dirty and well-used?

That sounds like a great question for the next moment of Velveteen’s story.

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