Lessons of the Skin Horse

“Walking along the beach at Abu Dhabi, I never felt so far away from home… or so far away from myself.”

The seemingly superficial Carrie Bradshaw in Sex In The City 2, like all of us, engages the universal search: to know ourselves; to find our true home.

Meister Eckhart said, “If I knew myself as intimately as I ought, I should have perfect knowledge of all creatures.”  And yet, as many of his commentators have observed, we never arrive at perfect knowledge of ourselves, let alone others.

Our essential selves, our own divinity, are within our grasp.  Nearer than near. Nearer than our own breath, the Psalmist teaches.

Seemingly simple. And yet it is the knowing that is The Journey that takes a lifetime.

We loved James Cameron’s stunning cinematic masterpiece Avatar. The protagonist Jake Sully battled so with his identity, his sense of self worth, his sense of inadequacy.  Only by investing all of himself – through conflict and turmoil and uncertainty and pain and suffering – in a cause greater than himself, did he discover who he really was.  Ultimately, and paradoxically, Jake is transformed into his Avatar.  His Real self.

“You learn from suffering, and against that background you can recognize  happiness,” says Thict Nhat Hanh. In that unfolding, we find our true selves.

“I have arrived in the Pure Land, a real home where I can touch the paradise of my childhood and all the wonders of life.  I am no longer concerned with being and non being, coming and going, being born or dying.  In my true home I have no fear, no anxiety.  I have peace and liberation. My true home is in the here and now,” Nhat Hanh says.

But how do we get to that place?

One of my very favorite stories of all time is The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams.  The central character in that story is a stuffed rabbit, a small boy’s constant companion.

At night, in the nursery, the rabbit converses with the Skin Horse and shares his hope of one day becoming a real rabbit. The rabbit wonders about the process of becoming Real.

“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 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 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.”

Time passes and the rabbit, dearly loved by the boy, becomes old and worn.

One day, the boy falls sick with scarlet fever. The boy’s doctor orders all of the germ-laden toys destroyed.  The rabbit is consigned to the trash heap where it is to be burned.  As it awaits its fate, the rabbit cries a tear of despair.  Rescued by the Nursery Magic Fairy, the rabbit is carried to the forest where it is transformed into a real rabbit. The following spring, as the boy plays in the grass, he sees a rabbit at the edge of the forest – and is reminded of the toy he so treasured. The story ends, “But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.”

The Journey to Real is filled with struggle and heartache and sadness and darkness.

And Joy and Wonder. And Love.

Get Real.

Heed the lessons of the Skin Horse.