Life is ironic. Trying to figure it out can be like looking through a kaleidoscope. Just when you think you’ve found some grounded perspective on what it’s all about, the world turns (as it always does every day) and changes the scene altogether. How do we make sense of it? Since the onset of humanity’s capacity to communicate, we’ve been trying to express our insight on the subject. Some of my favorite lines from literature are found within the pages of children’s books. Trying to articulate life in a way children can understand can be daunting; but such prose provide an accessible surmise of what matters and/or doesn’t, depending on one’s vantage point.
During my college days as a philosophy student, I well remember sitting in philosophical lectures all day and, by the end of the day, feeling like my head might spontaneously combust. I’d stumble back to my campus apartment in an intellectual stupor and lie on the couch to recuperate. I’d pull a children’s book off of the shelf to flip through and debrief from the day. Simply looking at the pictures told a story or, at least, offered a pre-verbal foundation to begin conceptualizing what life is really about. The irony of life is that it requires imagination to understand what is real; it also requires questions to arrive at an answer; it requires investment to appreciate its value, and it requires enduring love to utilize it in a profitable manner. How do we communicate these metaphysical factors to children? One of my most beloved passages that sums this up so beautifully comes from a children’s book that I found years ago at a yard sale:
“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
“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.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had
not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the
Skin Horse only smiled.
– The Velveteen Rabbit
- Salzburg Cathedral Ceiling; photo by Brian Wasson 2001
- The Velveteen Rabbit; by Margery Williams