Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint – The Search for our True Character Part 1

I was lying in a hospital bed awaiting surgery one day when a hospital chaplain came in to visit my roommate who was also awaiting surgery.

The chaplain introduced himself and as they chatted, the chaplain said, “are you retired?”

My roommate said he was, but that he was a sculptor.

The chaplain, as if he hadn’t heard, said, “What did you do before you retired?”

My roommate said, “I was an accountant, but now I’m a sculptor.”

I don’t think the chaplain heard the exasperation in my roommate’s voice because he went on to inquire about where my roommate had been an accountant and what sort of accounting he did.

My roommate politely answered those questions but his voice was flat and uninterested.

After the chaplain was out of the room, I told my roommate that I couldn’t help overhearing and asked about his sculpting.

My roommate enthusiastically told me how he welded metal objects together to create abstract forms.

At that time in my life, I had never met a sculptor – much less one who used a tool that my Dad used to fix broken wagon hitches.

This happened 30 years ago, but I never forgot it. I remember because:

  • I learned about art.
  • I learned even more about how not to make a hospital call.
  • And now I remember it because I missed an opportunity. I wish I had asked my roommate, “How did you know that, underneath that accountant, there was a sculptor wielding a welding torch?”


I didn’t ask that question because I was still in the first half of life. Like the chaplain, who probably was my age at the time, I was more comfortable with categories than with character.

In his book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman says that the soul’s code is our unique character.

The word “character” is derived from the Greek word for the stamping tool used to engrave a figure on a coin.  Your character, your soul’s code, is as deep and as hard to change as Lincoln’s head on a penny or the grain of the wood in this chair.



Jacquie’s mother gave this chair to us when we set up our first household, but it was covered with red tractor paint.  The paint may have helped preserve it through the six generations before us that sat on it and slid it back and forth so many thousands of times that the legs have been worn too short to fit under our table.

The paint may have made the chairs look more alike and brightened Jacquie’s grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen, but when Jacquie stripped the paint away, she found the grain of the wood out of which the chair was made. Then she refinished it in a way that brought out its character.

Most of us have covered our characters with red tractor paint. We did it when we learned to  imitate the people who taught us how to walk, talk, write, add and subtract, make pies, change tires, paint houses or portraits, balance a checkbook, and all the complex things we have done to earn a living, raise a family, and take part in human society.

Like the paint on the chair, this imitation is useful and protective – even decorative – it helps us fit into our family of origin, high school cliques, adult social circles and organizational cultures. Many of us put a lot of energy into painting over our uniqueness in the first half of life.

But our real beauty lies in our characters – underneath the paint of imitation. As we age, we can strip off the paint, and bring out the grain of our lives.

How do we do that?

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to publish three short blogs about how we can find our characters underneath the categories – the red tractor paint of imitation, social convention and professional identity that cover up our real selves.

In the meantime, how is your personal search for who you are underneath the red tractor paint going? What have you found? What are you afraid to find? Has the search — or what you found — changed anything in your life?

14 thoughts on “Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint – The Search for our True Character Part 1

  1. Enjoyed reading your blog. Depending who I’m with, I’m known as a mother/grandmother/soon-to-be great grandmother, church music director, administrative assistant, or maker of hand-made cards. Is there really more to my real character? Looking forward to reading how to find my real character after retiring.

  2. Roger,
    I will be 80 next year in March, most of my life I have been very scattered and although I feel I have been a caregiver and touched a lot of lives and had that purpose of taking care of people ever since I was in my 20’s. I am now struggling with finding the grain beneath the paint and your blog couldn’t have come at a better time for me,
    I was privileged to be touched by your sermons for the 18 yrs you were a pastor of my church, I am so happy to be able to hear your insights now and look forward to hearing more

  3. Interesting that the protagonist in your reflection was an accountant turned artist (sculptor) since it was pretty parallel to my own journey.
    For me the first door was opened by a friend inviting to join them at a pottery class followed by sculpture class following by a drawing class. In each class I discovered that there was a seed of undiscovered talent just waiting for a little light to shine in to begin to grow. Eighteen years of schooling to prepare for a career in technology and business and never an art class just lots of “red paint”. At first I found it uncomfortable to answer that question “what do you do” with the claim that “I am an artist”. But now I know I have always been an Artist just one that didn’t draw or throw or sculpt until after I retired at 62. True I still have much to learn, skills to hone and it is unlikely that it will bring significant prosperity in the years I have left but it is how I now know myself and is the lens through which I see the world.

  4. I have been retired…well not really. Working PRN because I can’t quite give it up- the feeling that I get helping people! I have recently joined Strongsville UMC and they have many ministries and I’m dipping my toes to get that same feeling.

  5. I have been a seeker of efficiency since the dawn of my beginning. I found the red tractor paint of social convention, imitation, etc quite useful to be able to get everything done that I wanted to do or had to do. So to some extent this fed me.
    Not all self discovery waits intil retirement. I changed direction several times in my life. Stopped boring job 1 – librarian.
    Retired from full time mom – job 2. Graduated from 2nd degree for retraining – job 3. Started working in oil and gas company. In the over 20 years and 3 companies, I never kept the same role very long – used A position to keep learning and making efficiencies then moved/got moved to something different. Other than full time mom never did the same thing for more than 5 years in a row.
    If there is alignment with the ‘grain’ of who you are and the essence of who you are (for me a logical, analytical thinker) you can enjoy the best of who you are in what you do.
    Where I hit a snag is that my ‘grain’ quality of not suffering fools gladly revealing itself despite my best efforts to camoflage it toward the end of my working years. Got tired of babysitting millenials and toeing thecorporate culture ‘party line’. Love owning my own time and setting my own priorities. Retirement has allowed me to be way more selfish. Just loving it.

    1. Maybe there is something genetic in changing directions several times during one career. I tell people that I have been married to a college student, Spanish Teacher, full-time Mom, Law School Student, Lawyer for a big firm, Development director, CEO of an agency working with developmentally disabled kids, And non-profit executive – but all the same woman! I think I am currently married to a yogi.

  6. Oh Roger ,,, just when I thought that you could not rise any higher on my “Admiration Pedestal” you write this Blog post. How true, how true dear friend. And sometimes, I might add, removing the layers and layers of “paint” in order to reveal what truly lies beneath can be arduous & painful,,,but ever so worth it when we get “Through It All’ 😉 Forever in His song, gks

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