Sunday, January 30, 2011

What is Real?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Velveteen Rabbit. In it, the Skin Horse explains "real" to the little stuffed bunny in the nursery. "Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you."

One of the areas I've been struggling with in the past few weeks is my authenticity. Digging deep into the recesses of my memories and experiences, I've unearthed this frightened little girl who is just crying out to be loved, completely loved and accepted, for just who she is. Not for what she does. Not for the promise someone sees in her. Not because she looks a certain way, acts a certain way, dresses a certain way. Just for being herself.

As I look at the layers and layers this girl has wrapped over the fear and hurt, I found myself critical of her. Look at all the falseness. Look at all the pretension. Look at all the lies she wrapped herself in. This person standing here now isn't real at all. She's just layers upon layers of dishonesty, covering up a scared, lonely child.

Wow. No wonder there have been a lot of tears this week. That's a pretty bleak self-image.

But, maybe I've been thinking about this the wrong way.

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether the reason for a particular layer was fear, hurt, and anxiety, or whether it was joy, service, and love. Perhaps it's just enough that I acted, no matter the motivation. Perhaps it's ok that the change of heart followed my actions rather than my heart urging the action.

Here's an example of what I mean. A little over 2 years ago, BigBro and I started volunteering at the Food Pantry. Immediately, I was uncomfortable. I mean, really uncomfortable. I didn't want to be there. Oh, I cared about the poor. I was willing to collect food for the pantry, and write a check, and even to help with a fundraiser. I wanted to raise children who cared about the poor. But, I didn't actually want to spend time with the poor.

So, when BigBro pressured me into volunteering, I was secretly hoping we would be turned down. We were welcomed, instead. He was excited and positive every time our shift came around. I was nervous and uncomfortable. For nearly a year, I went to that pantry every single month with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I really didn't enjoy it. I was doing it only because I thought teaching my son Christian values was more important than feeling comfortable.

For the first year, I volunteered as a shopper assistant, which meant that I accompanied a client around the pantry, explained the limits they were welcome to have in each food category, and helped them fill their cart. It meant making small talk with people who were occasionally unfriendly, sad, hostile, smelly, and dirty. It meant recognizing need right in front of me. It meant swallowing my own discomfort and trying to make each person feel welcomed and cared-for, for even just a few minutes in their week.

I hated it.

After a year, the pantry management asked me to begin training to do interviews. This meant that, instead of accompanying clients through the pantry, I would sit down with them and delve into their personal lives. I wasn't really sure I wanted to do this, but it meant that I would have less contact with the clients, seeing just a few per shift versus the 8-10 I normally saw, so I agreed.

Not exactly the motivations of Mother Teresa, huh?

Doing interviews was worse than being a shopper assistant. Way worse. As an assistant, I didn't necessarily get to know the clients. Often, we made small talk about the weather or their kids' ages. In the interviews, I got to hear their real stories. The lost jobs. The foreclosure notices. The illnesses. Suddenly, poor didn't just have a face, it had a name and a story.

I started coming home from there in tears, carrying their pain with me.

I didn't like the way the person who was training me treated the clients. She was rude, harsh, unfriendly. I was embarrassed to be sitting next to her, and often tried to make up for her rude behavior by being extra-nice. As soon as I'd been "trained" enough, it was my turn to sit behind the desk. The first thing I did was smile, shake hands with the client, and introduce myself. (Kinda basic, huh? But the other woman never did it).

And as time went by, as I got to know our clients as individuals, rather than a class of people, I stopped dreading my pantry shifts. I got more involved in the back-end running of the pantry. I started stopping by during other shifts to say hello or check in and see if they needed anything from me.

This past Thursday, we were short several volunteers and had a double-load because snow the week before had closed the pantry. We saw twice as many clients as we usually do. I had to do double-duty, helping out as both a shopper assistant and conducting interviews.

And I was loving every minute of it.

I was smiling, friendly, and outgoing. I shook hands, introduced myself, and cracked jokes with every client. I even got a laugh from the sullen teenager who always shops for her non-English-speaking parents.

But, here's the amazing part: I really loved what I was doing. I loved being a part of the pantry. I loved being with our clients. I loved that we were able to meet the extra need, despite being short-staffed and over-crowded. I didn't feel awkward or uncomfortable at all. My desire to be a part of this pantry, to serve these clients, and to spend my Thursday night there was real.

So, getting back to my authenticity struggle. I spent much of this week looking at my life with the wrong set of glasses, I think. I saw my food pantry experience as an example of dishonesty because I didn't want to be there, but pretended that I did. Whenever I remembered acting in a way opposite to how I felt, I labeled it "dishonest" or "inauthentic." Maybe that's not a fair characterization.

"Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you." I may not have been "made" self-confident, strong, and self-loving. Perhaps my childhood experiences help make me awkward, self-doubting, and scared. But, that's not how I've let myself be defined throughout my adulthood. I've "faked it" until I could do it for real. In the pantry, in college, and throughout my adult life, I can name numerous times when I "acted as if" I felt what I was supposed to be feeling. Most of the time, the feelings I wanted to have followed, in their own way and time.

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often 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. Once you are Real, you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

"The rabbit sighed. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him."

Me, too, little rabbit. Me, too.


  1. This is a great post. It is wonderful how God led you to love these people. And wonderful you did the right thing despite your feelings. I too wish I could become Real without uncomfortable things happening to me. But I guess God uses those very things to make us grow.

  2. I too loved the Velveteen Rabbit. And I have often thought that being real hurts. Good for you helping with the food pantry. Good for you in learning to love the patrons.

    (I do that same foot dragging with taking Eucharist to the shut ins. It is my hubby's ministry and he always makes me come with him. All of the people we have taken Eucharist to on a long term basis have been terminally ill and I always grow to love them and their families. And after they die and we have free Sundays again I always say--Never again.....)

  3. profound, Jen, and......


    Thanks be to God.