The Crimson White

Stop painting by the number

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Mom, I have a weird confession to make. I enjoyed being sick as a child. It wasn’t the physical pain or emotional exhaustion that I found pleasurable. It wasn’t missing school or rewatching the same three episodes of “I Love Lucy.” It certainly wasn’t the puking or diarrhea (reference bodily functions in farewell column? Check!). My source of joy in the midst of sickness was simple: getting a paint-by-number kit. When sick enough to get prescriptions at a pharmacy, I would be given the chance to pick one of the countless frolicking puppy paint-by-number scenes.

As the safety net of my college experience quickly fades, I am reflecting on the sickly afternoons I spent with skinny plastic brushes, clear paint canisters and a loose outline of a frolicking puppy. Perhaps I found so much joy in the paint-by-number process because it was mindless. Grab brush. Dip brush into yellow paint. Stroke brush on number matching yellow. Rinse brush. Eat Pop-Tart. Repeat. After just a few hours, I would feel like a brilliant artist. Then the puking would begin again.

I often caught myself over the last few years painting people by number. In this process, every potential involvement, passion or affiliation on campus is assigned a certain number. Upon meeting someone, I would grab my mental brush, dip it into their corresponding paints and color their personhood with my perceptions. This metaphorical painting by number, however, is just as mindless as and much more disgusting than the art I did as a vomiting child. Students on this campus are not flat pieces of pre-drawn pictures waiting for external perception of their identities to be painted over them. Such perpetual coloring of people undermines our understanding of others and overlooks our unifying God-given value as humans.

Instead of canvases, perhaps family rooms are a more accurate metaphor for people. It takes time to discover the different doors and windows through which we invite others into our reality. Instead of the muddied chaos of different paints being mixed together, we can dive into difficult conversations like multicolor bulbs illuminating new spaces for growth. Progress will not come when we just wash our brushes of unwanted paint, so we must embrace conflict while sitting together on couches. Like all people, family rooms are designed to hold more than one person, but too often we hide in corners paralyzed by the fear of vulnerability. We must collectively reject this lie and recognize everyones desires to be accepted and valued within a community. We are not flat papers waiting to be painted by perceptions. We are multi-dimensional spaces longing to be illuminated.

Empathy, maybe the most powerful of human skills, must be practiced to be permanent. More simply, let’s stop looking at the ground when we pass each other and take the risk of eye contact and a smile.

I have been incredibly blessed with life-defining opportunities throughout my college experience to pursue bold ideas with passionate teams. But, in the end, ideas are not revolutionary. People are. I challenge myself and this campus to throw away the brushes and find more lightbulbs.

David Phelps was the founding president of Tide Talks and UnlockED.

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Stop painting by the number