“The supreme happiness of this life is the conviction that we are loved, loved for ourselves-say rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
One of the most beautiful descriptions of love I have ever read comes from 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.”
- “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.”
Those words are so profound for it describes vividly our struggle in relationship. We all long for true love, but it comes at such cost. It is this true love that makes us real and makes our lives real. To be loved in spite of ourselves, we must first be ourselves and that is no easy task. We are instantly changed by those around us, sometimes profoundly and other times so subtly we are unaware of the change ourselves.
Becoming real is a long and painful road, accompanied by a painful love. Those that are easily broken fall by the wayside and give up on relationships or give up on being themselves. Others, with sharp edges, keep people at such a distance that love isn’t possible. The only way they know how to be themselves is to keep people away. Others can’t enter into the pain of real relationship. They tiptoe around others and deny their own needs. “Handle with care” is written upon their hearts and others know to tiptoe as well. The rough embrace of love is denied them.
We become ugly when we enter into loving relationship. Our hair gets loved off, our joints get loose. All of our disguises and pretenses get painfully rubbed away, but love teaches us that what we thought was ugly was simply human. It is in that moment that we experience a “love in spite of ourselves.” That is why so many people are lonely though surrounded by many. That is why so many find their romantic relationships unfulfilling. How can you feel loved when no one sees who you really are? Significant parts of who you are get held back, never knowing whether the whole you will be accepted or rejected, always suspecting the latter.
I suppose that is what I find so gratifying about group therapy. As I watch a group of individuals come into a room with all of their defenses, fears, and facades, I watch how painfully they struggle to both discover and unveil who they truly are. As a rule, politeness reigns at the beginning of a group. Everyone begins by living out the same rules within the group that they hold themselves to outside the group. Frustrations are ignored, people are encouraged and applauded regardless of agreement, but slowly with help from the facilitators there emerges conflict. Perhaps for the first time someone is openly expressing disagreement or sharing their fears. It is frightening, it is not met with the perfect response and there is pain, sadness, and fear. But as I have worked with each of them I can say with both pride and awe that they are “not easily broken.”
As they persevere and struggle an amazing thing happens. For the first time they are able to work through disagreements, fears, and vulnerabilities with someone else. The individual discovers that they can be themselves and survive. Even better than survive, they become even more connected.
This is an oversimplification of a long and painful process, but it is nothing short of thrilling to watch someone, who has sacrificed who they truly are, begin to step out and let the world know who they really are. What would it be like to take off your mask?