The Midwest winter has played its usual part this year, covering our city with regular layers of snow and ice, with ridiculously high winds racing across the fields. I decided some sort of creative project was in order to help me pass the time till spring’s thaw. After a bit of online searching I found exactly what I was hoping for: a paint-by-number kit of a mountain scene that echoed Colorado’s Flatirons.
Within two days, thanks to Amazon Prime, the box arrived and my Sunday afternoon plans were set. Excitedly I set out the paints, brushes, and instruction sheet. I surveyed the canvas with its squiggly outlines and numbered spaces, trying to figure out where to start. It certainly didn’t look like a mountain range. I studied the canvas, willing my eyes to see a mountain landscape within the scatter of numbers and lines. Instead I saw something reminiscent of an elephant and a large tree and a bird. After some deliberation, I had to come to grips with reality:
The picture in my hands was wrong.
Everything else was correct: the paints, the brushes, the instruction sheet, even the kit’s box. But the wrong canvas had been included, and my afternoon plan was a bust.
This little mishap has delivered plenty for me to think about after this week’s “Thinking Twice” episode with Jen Pollock Michel. Jen has been exploring the role of paradox in life and in faith, and how we tend to sacrifice mystery on the altar of certainty. Our need for surety drives us to conclusions that meet our presuppositions. Such drivers are at work in us, fueling the undercurrents of our hearts and minds, shaping our conclusions—and most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it.
How does this work in everyday life? It’s as simple as placing people into categories based on partial information in order to resolve the unknown.
Let’s say you are in a conversation with a colleague who, in passing, mentions support for a local political mandate. Everything you presume of those who support the initiative has been triggered, and you place your colleague into a mental category. You assign opinions, thoughts, motives, and reasoning to this person to match him or her to a mental picture.
This is what we do to bring order out of the chaos around us. We all want people—and life—to be tamed and to make sense, so we sort and label things based on whatever information we have available. Needless to say, our conclusions are often flimsy. Even worse, we cling to them because we want to be right.
All this was at play as I scrutinized my canvas, searching for the image I was certain should be there. The evidence I had supported my assumption: the picture on the box, the paints, the instructions—all pointed to the scene I wanted to see, the project I wanted to start on that cold Sunday. But as new images emerged—an elephant, a bird, and a tree—I had to face the truth: the picture on the canvas did not match the one I wanted to paint.
So I’m returning the wildlife painting kit. It’s not the picture I had in mind or the one that will work with the kit I received. Likewise, I’m challenged to give the people around me a more careful look. There are plenty of details for me to discover, images and ideas hidden within the squiggly lines of their complex and wondrous lives.