Jennifer Wohl Counseling

Grief and Authenticity

January 25, 2012

One of the things I enjoy most about being a psychotherapist is helping clients live more authentic lives. The word authentic is related etymologically to the words authority and author, and all three words come from the prefix auto, meaning self. To live an authentic life, then, is to be the author of your own life, to live a life in which authority rests with yourself, not with others.

To be the author of one's own life requires that one be the subject, rather than the object, of one's life—the doer, rather than the "done to." In the beloved 1922 children's story, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, a stuffed toy rabbit becomes Real by being loved by the Boy. But the Velveteen Rabbit does not live an authentic life just by being loved. The rabbit still does not have choice about his own life; he is a player in the Boy's life, not an autonomous being with adventures and goals of his own.

At the end of the story, the Velveteen Rabbit has been discarded by family members who believe the shabby, old, stuffed animal is full of scarlet-fever germs and will be harmful to the already ill Boy. As the Velveteen Rabbit lies in a pile of other discarded books and toys, he begins to reflect on the pleasure-filled days he spent with the Boy. His heart aches when he imagines those days are over. He begins to cry. One of his tears falls to the ground; from that spot a beautiful flower emerges. From the beautiful flower, a fairy appears. The fairy transforms him from a rabbit who had been Real only to the Boy into an autonomous, living, breathing rabbit who can live out his life in the wild amongst his peers.

No one likes to grieve. It's painful to think of our life gone by – of good memories with friends and loved ones, as well as missed opportunities. But the Velveteen Rabbit shows us that an authentic life, a life in which we are the authors rather than the actors in someone else's script, is found in the midst of genuine grieving. And love helps.

Clients become more authentic not only by being loved just as they are, but also by grieving what has been lost. Becoming one's authentic self takes time and effort. As the Skin Horse, the Velveteen Rabbit's wise friend, says, "It doesn't happen all at once…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 your 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."

Paradoxically, aging and grieving are the tickets to authenticity and beauty. Except to those who don't understand.

Williams, Margery. 1922. The Velveteen Rabbit. Kindle Edition.