On Becoming Real

Even an old troglodyte like me can appreciate the benefits of modern technology. So I may be a troglodyte but I am decidedly not a Luddite, even though I find some manifestations of modern technology unsettling. I can remember going to a lunch with a prominent international figure as the guest speaker when one of those at my table spent the duration of her speech texting and checking e-mails on his i-Phone. I am old fashioned enough to interpret that as disrespectful. It almost seems for such people that their i-Phone, or whatever, is part of who they are, or at least how they identify themselves.

It is another manifestation of the fact we have entered an era of identity politics where people feel compelled to take on an appropriate “identity” to assert who they are. It seems if you can’t take on the mantle of one of the various varieties of the LGBTI community, feminism, aboriginality, climate change warrior, or gain victim status from some obtuse set of circumstances then maybe you have no “personhood”.

The prevailing ethos is to assert in whatever way I can that I am somehow special and that you should acknowledge that.

We go to great lengths to demonstrate our importance. If you sit in an airport lounge there is always someone wandering around talking loudly into a mobile phone demonstrating how important he or she is.

The volume of traffic on twitter or the number of Facebook “likes” seem also for some a measure of their individual importance and hence a contributor to their confected identity.

But this is a very shallow evaluation of human worth.

Now as you may have noticed over the years of my writing blog essays, I am an incurable romantic and an idealist to boot. Probably because of my truncated intelligence I have often turned to the books I read to my children and grandchildren for inspiration. One of my favourite children’s stories is The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.

These poor souls that I have illustrated above, struggling to assert their specialness and importance are, in the words of the Velveteen Rabbit, wanting to be “Real”.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a stuffed toy and his friend is a toy horse, who has been the toy of an older boy and to the Rabbit seems to have a degree of wisdom.

“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.”

Now is there no greater affirmation than this? Who cares how many “likes” you have on Facebook. If you are fortunate enough to be loved and if you have the capacity to love, then there is no need to clamour for any other affirmation of self.

Two of the stand out lessons I have learned over the years are:

  • Nobody is special, (from the good Dr Phil) and,
  • We are either full of love ……or full of fear (a quote from Albert Einstein introduced to me by the good Dr Phil).

The Rabbit, as most of us, was initially miffed because he seemed in no way special.

The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn’t know that real rabbits existed. He thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out of date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers, and should have broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with Government. Between them all, the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.

In today’s world many people clamour for publicity to feel authentic. We even have celebrities (I know I don’t have to name them!) who are well-known not because they have any particular talent but who have made a career about always being in the public eye! It seems that once you have attained such fame there are no end of invitations to be on TV panels, attend celebrity events or to give media interviews. Thus their fame becomes self-perpetuating.

And if we can’t manage this level of public confirmation we can always resort to being a participant in talk-back radio, writing copious “letters to the editor”, being part of a group protesting a popular cause, standing for Local Government or whatever. Perhaps the most narcissistic strategy is to become a participant in reality TV.

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, insightfully (and sarcastically) wrote an essay titled How Publicity Makes People Real. In discussing reality TV he instanced a Fox miniseries called Temptation Island which calls for real life couple to be sequestered on an island under the camera’s eye while they resist or succumb to a corps of unattached tempters who have been assigned real-life supporting roles. He writes:

The couples know what they are getting into. They have placed themselves in the line of the betrayals or self-betrayals that are a hazard of everyday life – only they have done it in conditions of formalised, almost dreamlike predictability. Nothing is new in the problems of will and the field of action that are presented here. The puzzle is why even the most pandering and besotted of the media and the most naïve of the bodies yearning to be made real, should have bargained for an exposure so exacting. The president of Fox Enterprises, Gail Berman, described the show as a “terrific unscripted soap opera,” and the choice of metaphor is revealing. Conventional fiction itself has become too fake, too scripted. The solution is to turn reality itself into an organised fake. In this way, the new sort of fake, steeped in the clichés of soap operas takes on a peculiar pungency because it is also infallibly real. The interest now lies not in the plot but in the consequences for the lives of the actors that will stay changed long after the show is over.

In this way these pathetically insecure people are banking on exposing their foibles and weaknesses to millions of people in some vain quest to gain the notoriety they believe they need to make themselves “real”.

The Rabbit continued his conversation with the Skin Horse about becoming 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 who have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept.”

The Skin Horse is very wise, as you can see. But he was a little in error by suggesting that once you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. In fact, when you are Real you can’t be hurt. But the rest of his statement is pure wisdom. Only the psychologically robust can ever be Real. They have no need to manufacture facades to hide behind. They are Real because they are authentic. For them it is indeed true “that what you see is what you get”.

Now all these contrivances to “manufacture” an identity can be traced back to the choice of “fear” that Einstein referred to and the good Dr Phil has explained to many of us. When we are authentic (Real) we are happy to engage the world just as we are. This is enabled by our worldview of Love. We don’t see the world as in any way inimical to us. That is not to say we don’t expect bad things to happen, as of course they will but we accept this just as a statistical likelihood that the universe bestows on us and not as anything particularly malevolent and certainly not punitive.

Those that seek to manufacture an identity rather than just accept who they are (fashioned by genetics and social conditioning beyond their reasonable control) are driven by the opposite motive –fear! They see the world as a hostile place where they must take action to defend themselves even if the defence mechanism amounts to subterfuge and self-delusion.

The Skin Horse was maybe no Einstein but he did understand the real nature of the world better than most of us. Indeed as someone (whose name I can’t recall) sang in the seventies “Love is the answer”.

It is not easy I know, but if you choose love, you too could be Real (even without appearing on reality TV)!

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