Thursday, January 15, 2009

Playing Favourites

"I like that blue," Pie said gravely, staring into the innards of our toilet. This is her new thing - whenever she flushes the toilet, she wants me to lift the lid from the tank so she can watch the water level rising all the way to the blue plastic cap at the top. "I like that blue, and I like that black."

"You like colours, don't you," I observed. "Do colours make you happy?"

"Yeah," Pie mused. "It's like, 'Hey! Purple! I like that!'"

Indeed. That is exactly what it is like: her life summed up in a nutshell. Pie is the pink and purple police, constantly scanning her environment for pastel-coloured objects. When she finds one - even in books that she reads every night - she must stop and point it out: "I like that pink. I like that purple."

This, clearly, is an inherited trait. I imagine it even serves a Darwinian purpose. If I had been born in a hunter-gatherer society, I would have been the one to save the tribe from scurvy by scanning the environment for wild lemon trees. If all that stood between my family and starvation were a few half-buried yellow peppers, I would be the one to spot them first.

It's a bit harder to imagine how a preference for pink or purple would confer a survival advantage. Perhaps they help to attract a mate? The most confounding colour preferences, though, are green and brown. Green and brown are everywhere; it's hard to see how our pleasure in these colours serves any kind of biological purpose.

The joy of colour seems related to what theologians sometimes call "the problem of pleasure." If theists must account for the presence of pain and suffering in a world created by a loving God, then atheists must equally account for the surfeit of pleasure our world offers us. Some pleasures, to be sure, have a clear biological payoff, but others seem like a tantalizing excess, a pure gift. They speak to the presence of something transcendent in our relationship to our physical environment.

I was advised, once, to thank God for my favourite colour. Ever since that day, the concept of praise has made more sense to me. Praise involves thankfulness not so much for what we have as for everything that is. To praise God for creating the colour yellow not only allows me to perceive something joyous and vibrant in the Creator, but also to recognize a connectedness between me, personally, and the world around me. One of the reasons that God created the colour yellow was because I, individually, would enjoy it so much.

Favourite colours, though, are a bit of a mystery to me. Not everyone has one, and I'm not sure that sufficient psychological studies have been done to determine why and how some people bond so passionately and permanently to a single colour. I have never wavered in my preference for yellow, which I know was well-established by the time I was three, the age Pie is now. Pie's preference for pink and purple may not be equally long-lasting: right now, her devotion to these colours is an expression of gender identity as much as aesthetic taste - she likes pink and purple (and is compelled to say so aloud at every opportunity) because doing so helps define for her who she is and where she fits into her social environment. She likes pink and purple at least in part because she believes that this is what all girls do. I, on the other hand, have always appreciated the idiosyncracy of my preference for yellow. My best friend prefers green; her sister likes orange. For all of us, this favourite colour business is a defining quirk - if I were to suddenly start preferring blue to yellow, I would no longer be me - the next thing you know I'd join a volleyball team and start leaving my bed unmade in the morning.

I've been revisiting my paint chips lately, conferring madly with Mad about the colours for her new kitchen. It's a bit of a relief to me to discover that paint chips are equally compelling to me whether they are for my house or someone else's. Colour has been a source of pleasure for me since I was small, and it's reassuring to know that such pleasure can be detached from the shallower lures of consumerism and acquisition.


wheelsonthebus said...

lovely post. as always.

i've always loved this james taylor line because i felt he was singing to me:
"deep greens and blues are the colors i choose"

Magpie said...

I love blue and I never make my bed. But I also have terrible hand/eye coordination, so volleyball is out.

Color is important - it's so...visceral.

planetnomad said...

I love colour but I can't, won't, choose a favorite. I have definite preferences depending on what the coloured items is. For example, I like yellow flowers, but not yellow trousers.

I suspect that Pie's preference for pink and purple will soon be outgrown (like my own daughter's was), but she may always lean towards reds and blues.

As for liking green, if you live in a desert you will soon learn that it is your favorite after all.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Az's favorite color has been green ever since he returned from the Middle East. "Green is the color of life, " he says. "It means I won't starve."

Your post reminds me of Rich Mullins' song "The Color Green."

Omaha Mama said...

I love that idea on praise. Thank you for sharing that, it is a lovely thought.
If it were the 80's, you could be my colorist and totally pick out make-up for me.
Do you ever associate a color with a certain feeling? That would be an interesting study also.

Mimi said...

What's really weird is that I didn't read this post before I wrote to you today about bringing all your paint chips to my house.

I have a bunch of favorite colours: colours that I like to wear, that I like to look at, of things to eat. My 'favorite' is always contextual.

Munchkin is always pretending to be a pony or a puppy, and she is always "the brown puppy" while "Mommy, you are the white one." Which is also a little weird because I always wanted to be the white one as a kid. And now I can!

Marian said...

I've always wondered if my penchant for green isn't just a bit related to the longing for spring. A majority of my youth was spent in areas with long, white winters. From November (if not October) through March (if not April) every year I longed for, watched for, and eagerly anticipated the color green.

kate w said...

I've loved brown for a long time, though in the beginning it was pink, then purple, then blue. Once I realized brown is more than just the colour of poo, I was in love...

I just heard someone say that making images connects the human with the divine. In my mind, it seems the same as praising God for favourite colours...

Mad said...

Orange. It's been orange since forever. In fact when you recommended that I use orange accents for "pop" the other day, I almost replied, "like duh!"

I love how you rely on the link to Darwinian survival and the tie to our primitive ancestors in this post given that you have, in the past, debunked arguments that rely on such a connection.

Also, just b/c I'm an athesist must I also be a utilitarian? Can't the world hold both pain and beauty without the possibility of divine design?

Anonymous said...

Start to play volleyball! Ha!

Geister has changed his favourite colour from orange to red and I just don't like it. I'm still grabbing for the orange bowls, cups, and shirts for him automatically.
It's just not right--we don't have so many red bowls, or shirts, or anything. Sigh.

Green rules.

Lady M said...

Please come choose paint colors for my house! My favorite color is red, god help us.

kittenpie said...

I'm a colour freak, too. In the 4 rooms and the hallway I've painted here, as well as two rooms I've only partially painted (accent walls on the walls that got ripped open anyhow), I've used no less than 8 colours, not counting white. My house looks like an easter egg. I love 7 of the colours.

Mad said...

Hey! My comment sounds snarky. Sorry. I meant it with a tone of playful banter.

Hannah said...

I sometimes will leaf through the paint chips I collected when we were choosing the colours for this house. I have no intention of painting anytime soon, but especially in the depths of winter it satisfies something in my soul to imagine the kinds of colours I would choose if I had no one to make happy but myself.

I can't wait to see the colours you and Mad pick for that kitchen.

Bea said...

Mad - It's a good point (and I didn't think you were snarky). I've never quite been able to see how the "problem of pleasure" qualifies as any kind of proof of God's existence. If the question is "Why do these non-utilitarian pleasures exist?" then I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with the response, "Well, why not?" I do find it interesting, though, to think about which category any particular pleasure falls into. And I'm not sure that, in the end, the utilitarian pleasures aren't my favourite.

(And it's Darwinian explanations of GENDER that drive me nuts, btw. The other ones I can handle.)

mek said...

I like pretty much all colors, too (maybe also why I love quilting so much), but green has a special place in my heart. I read somewhere that green is the color family of which the human eye can recognize the most variations. To me, this makes sense from an evolutionary biology perspective, and of course I also like the poetry of the idea. Conversely, red is the shade whose variations humans generally have the most trouble recognizing as different.

Merle said...

I don't have a favourite colour. It is sad but true. GB on the other hand proudly announces to all that his favourite colour is pink. Most recently he asked me for a pink soccer ball. He did remark one day that boys don't usually like pink but that he does anyway. You got to love his self confidence in his masculinity even at four years old!! lol