What is real? This might sound like the question posed by the professor of a freshman philosophy class, but it’s a question we are confronted with everyday. What is real?
In some places, this question seems obvious. If you don’t have a home, cold weather is real, and if you live off the food you gather or grow, the hardship of feeding your family may be real. Without plastic wrapped grocery store apples and decorative fireplaces in temperature controlled homes, some people experience a kind of reality that few of us in our community might ever experience.
Today I am writing this while sitting in an airport. Some sociologists call airports ‘in between’ places, or ‘liminal’ spaces according to their jargon. They are not ‘real’ in the sense that people do not stay here, they are merely passing through from one place to another. Because they are passing through, they do not typically care for the place or for the people they see. They zip by and carry on. Whether airports are ‘real’ to us or not, the fact remains: We give more meaning to some places than others.
When we ask ‘what is real’ we are really wondering about what is most important. What is good. What is worth my time and my attention. Malcolm Guite, a favourite poet of mine, wrote, “We surf the surface of a wide-screen world, And find no virtue in the virtual.” What real thing are you searching for? What is virtual and passing to you? What have you found that you would call ‘real’ and worthwhile?
People, places, or things that we do not see as ‘real’ are not really in our scope or view. Virtual things are, in the end, empty. Useful for a time, maybe, but not something worth the hard and rewarding work of love. When something is real to you, it matters.
Harry Overstreet wrote that “to the immature, other people are not real.” When we live with our eyes only on our own lives and stuff, we do not see others as the very real people that they are. Without the right eyes to see, people can become like any other passing thing: unimportant and meaningless. But those who are alert to the real people they see come alive with new purpose. Business people who see others as more than consumers enjoy relating to the people they serve. Neighbours who know and care for the people around them see and experience their community very differently than those who just pass through. Families who see past the façade of their hurting children, parents, or a spouse will find the real person they are invited to love.
People are real. They are worth the effort to know and love. When we see others as real, they will never be seen as a transaction, a used resource, or a project. When people are real, they are both messier and more beautiful. We discover goodness where we did not know it could exist, and hope in places that seemed hopeless.
Who is real to you? May we discover the beauty of coming alive to the very real people and places around us. When we do, we may in turn discover just how ‘real’ and loved we are, too.