“You,” he said, “are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”
That quote belongs in Emilie Autumn’s psychological thriller, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. I used it to describe Robin Williams when he died.
The comedian’s brave living inspired me to be real, as well — resisting the temptation to photoshop my blemishes and hide my insecurities from the world. I believe that powerful writing and living requires vulnerability. But being real is not for the weary. It comes with considerable risks. Especially in our happy culture that views any kind of discontentment as a symptom of neurosis or maladjustment.
To pull off being real, we need always be working toward knowing ourselves and loving ourselves. We continue to evolve, so this job is like laundry – never-ending. There is always another layer of ourselves to explore and to accept. Some unsightly, and others pretty cool. Being real means holding our core self like we would an infant – relaxed and yet firm.
Being real doesn’t mean spilling your guts to everyone. You are allowed to keep parts of your story to yourself. The late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will. You might think you are being generous in giving access to anyone who wants to enter or leave, but you will soon find yourself losing your soul.”
Nor does it mean shutting everyone out of your life so that you can throw away your filter. That may feel liberating at first, but it inevitably leads to resentment and loneliness. It’s a delicate and complicated dance – constructing just enough boundaries in conversations with others to protect yourself while remaining true to who you really are.
Being real demands a kind of comfort with oneself whereby you can be authentic even though you face criticism. Think Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther king, Dorothy Day. Your faith and values become an anchor of stability in the shifting currents of popular culture and trendy opinions. You are not immune to negative feedback, but you rise above it knowing who you are – a child of God who is deeply loved by the Father and by a few others here on earth.
It’s not a cognitive exercise. You can’t GET real by taking a class or doing a thought log or practicing mindfulness techniques. It’s a matter of the heart. The only way you get brave enough to bare your soul in a way that is uninsured is by trusting a few people in your life to love you unconditionally. This means letting them be around you in your ugliest moments. Not everyone. Not your neighbor’s brother who is being polite by asking you how you are. Just a few souls who you think are up for the job.
Their love, in turn, builds the foundation for a stronger self, so that you know how to be simultaneously authentic and self-compassionate . You are not a smiley-faced phony, but you do what you need to do in any given moment to honor yourself.
We can’t become real on our own. It’s impossible. Other people make us real by loving us.
Margery Williams describes the process better than anyone in her classic, The Velveteen Rabbit.
“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.”
“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.”
Being real isn’t glamorous.
Sometimes it can be a drag.
But a real person is undoubtedly beautiful.
Because she is genuine and strong.
Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller, Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)