by Joanie Butman
I bumped into someone this week who unexpectedly thanked me for sharing my stories. I was honored for two reasons:
- Someone other than my mother was actually reading them.
- Someone recognized the value in them.
From what she said, I knew it had nothing to do with me being a particularly good writer or that my stories were worthy of a screenplay. Their value was simply their “realness.”
She said, “If I didn’t know your stories, I’d look at you and think you had a perfect life – making mine seem even less so.” A perfect life is more of a fantasy than the perfect mother I discussed last week. So why are so many people chasing one? They’ve bought into the lies I suppose. If you buy this house or product, or get this job, or get into this school, or get into this club, or get to know the right people, or earn enough money, or loose enough weight, THEN your life will be perfect. I often hear people use the term “living the dream,” but I’ve never been able to determine what that means. Whose dream and what is it? Is this the imaginary bar against which people measure themselves?
Regardless, I laughed out loud at the idea of anyone looking to me or my family for perfection – unless, of course, they were looking for the perfect example of a very real family, warts and all. She obviously didn’t know me well because I’ve always been the person who is held together with duct tape and safety pins, who only irons the collar of her shirt so can never take her sweater or jacket off no matter how hot it gets, who despises the thought of living with a permanent wedgie so thinks walking backwards is an excellent solution to panty lines, the one whose skirt ended up around her ankles on a crowded escalator because the pin that was holding it together popped, the one whose children’s hems are taped up, or the one who sent her son to the choir concert in his first communion jacket – five years later! I’m easily recognizable - the one with the duct tape over her mouth on the sidelines trying to spare her children further embarrassment, which they have determined is her mission in life. An excellent and inexpensive way to remove unwanted facial hair by the way. You’d be amazed at what you find when you look under the hood of most families. The one thing I guarantee you won’t find is perfection.
That woman’s comment illustrates how isolating the ideal of perfection can be along with the comfort and encouragement derived from sharing life stories. Simply put, our shared stories offer strength, inspiration, comfort, empathy, compassion and encouragement. They connect us. They break down boundaries of perfectly manicured lawns and picket fences. They help give us perspective. They lighten our burdens. However, in order to accomplish this, you have to be willing to be real. I asked a friend recently why people find that so terrifying. She answered, “Because people can be hurtful.” True enough, but whether or not we’re authentic isn’t going to change that. That’s a choice they make. I would rather people like or dislike me for who I am rather than someone I’m pretending to be. The way I see it, I’m of no use to anyone if I hide behind a façade of perfection - even if I could manage to carry it off, which is doubtful.
My friend’s answer reminded me of the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. If you remember, the Velveteen Rabbit desperately wanted to be real and learned the price of being real is sometimes pain, but at the same time he also experienced the incredible joy and freedom that it brings.
The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything. He was naturally shy, and some of the more expensive toys snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, looked down upon every one else and pretended they were real. Between them all, the poor little Rabbit was made to feel very insignificant and commonplace.
One day the Rabbit seeks out wisdom from the Skin Horse who had lived longer than any of the others in the nursery. He was wise…for nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. (Sounds a lot like life, don’t you think?)
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit.
"Real isn't how you are made," answered 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 often 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."
Well said, Mr. Ed. Therein lies the essence of my Christian faith. Why am I not afraid of being real? Because the only one whose opinion matters already knows the real me and loves me anyway. Just like the Skin Horse explained, it took a long time but when I finally realized just how much I was REALLY loved, that gave me the freedom and confidence to choose to be real. And the older I get, the more real I become. It’s one of the best parts of aging. Yes, we lose our gloss and get a little frayed around the edges, our eyes (and everything else) droop and our joints ache, but the magic of being real exudes a different kind of beauty that goes deeper and lasts longer than any Botox treatment.
Here is a great audio/visual that resonates strongly with me about this particular subject. Click on to play.