Questioning the sincerity of simple pleasures

I feel betrayed.

Last Wednesday, having just spent 30 minutes attempting to memorize the six republics of the country-that-was-Yugoslavia, numb with sensory deprivation, I began to wander my residence hall aimlessly until I found myself face-to-face with my savior.

"Finger paint! Cookies!" promised the perkily-printed poster. "8 o'clock in the old basement!"

It was 7:55. My destiny was clear. I had been given this opportunity to reverse the insidious mid-term calcification of my personality through carefree and childlike artistic expression.

Ten minutes later, I was sitting on the floor, gleefully smearing paint everywhere. My repressed emotions were stronger than even I had expected and soon I was crouched amidst six square feet of my gooey creation, attempting to convince everyone that the brownish blob I was working on was a volcano.

To their credit, the other eight or so people delicately painting in their own spaces were very supportive of my efforts. Surprisingly supportive. Surrounded by choruses of "Hakuna Matatta," I felt as if I were enveloped in a cottony world of love.

Having cleaned most of the paint from our bodies, a wholesome game of Pictionary quickly ensued. By this point, I was awed that such altruistic and good-hearted people could exist on this campus. It was heartening to think that there were other finger-paint-loving individuals like myself who weren't ashamed to admit it.

Eventually, the invariable happened and several of the dorm's resident assistants happened by. Between mouthfuls of soft-bake cookies, one of them knowingly asked, "So, how many of you are taking the R.A. class?"

As my still-euphoric mind attempted to grasp the implications of this question, everyone in the room but I and one other carefree painter raised their hands.

For one immeasurable moment, the world stopped turning and the gravity of the situation struck me. While I had thought my compatriots were merely students like myself, looking for something out of the ordinary to do, they were actually completing a leadership assignment for an R.A. training class.

In a matter of seconds, I went through all of the stages of grief. I was devastated. Then I became enraged. Then I threatened to write this column.

My purpose in relating this tale is not to vent my nonexistent feelings toward the resident assistant program. My purpose is to demonstrate what I see as the significance of that night on a much larger scale.

I asked myself why I felt so betrayed as I walked back to my room. I realized that the theme I had seen demonstrated that night was one that was played out across the country every day: good-meaning people participating in something to improve the lives of others.

The key word here is "others." Why was this not just a group of students that wanted to finger-paint getting together? Why did they need an organization for motivation? Why was their project aimed at "other," non-R.A. students? Why had they not announced their agenda? Why had I not seen such innovative ideas from R.A.'s last semester?

In our society, there are a myriad of projects and organizations aimed at helping "other" people under the guise of camaraderie. Not the least of these is the Republican "Contract with America," which purports to be for the everyday citizen of this country. Yet, how many everyday citizens worked on it? How many of its supporters truly understand its implications? Are its congressional proponents concerned more about the American people or their jobs?

What I am advocating is that people question the motives of those who are supposed to be helping them. Beyond that, those in positions of power should have more than a sense of altruism, they should have some tangible connection to the recipients of their benevolence.

One need not have been abused as a child to work to prevent future instances of it, but one needs to do more than present theories of dysfunctional families and their publicly-funded solutions from an ivory tower.

Charity and genuine, concerned good will should not eliminated. They are what keep the current system running on a day-to-day basis. What needs to be eliminated is the "other" element in the backing philosophy.

How many recent discussions of the welfare system have you hears that neither ignored nor dehumanized its recipients? How often must public officials detach themselves from those they are asked to help by denying past instances of drug abuse, marital problems, or teenage delinquency?

So, the next time you find yourself in a position of power, give more than lip-service to the common folk. The next time you talk about helping a group of people, be they teenage mothers, drug users, or the elderly, realize that the positions could very easily be reversed. And the next time you want to do something silly like fingerpainting, don't wait for an assignment to give you credit for it, organize some people and do it just because.

Christie Petersen is an anthropology freshman.

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