“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.”
“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.”
– The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
“I will call the world School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read — I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School — and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity.”
– John Keats (Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, Feb-May 1819)
It is at least somewhat comforting to think that identity is shaped by what one learns from suffering. Our souls are shaped by experience and how we react to those experiences. Perhaps like the Velveteen Rabbit, our souls become battered through time, tired, dirty, and worn down by life and love. But by the time we are old and wrinkled and discarded for something more appealing, we too can say that we are Real. And the lines on our faces will tell people that we have learned to read the heart and have found our souls.