Paint Cans: A Fable


There was this guy, and he cared about the environment. He never threw mostly-empty paint cans in the trash when he was finished with a painting project. “Paint is bad for the environment,” he said. “It goes in the landfill, it ends up in the groundwater.”

So he put his old paint cans in the shed to await the day when he could carry them to the paint disposal place across town.

All his friends said, “Listen—all you’ve got to do is to throw your old paint cans in the trash, put some garbage on top. The trash men will carry them right off. They’ll never know the difference.”

The guy said, “You like drinking paint, do you?”

“Pardon?” his friends said.

“You like drinking paint? That’s what you’ll be doing if everybody throws their paint cans in the trash. It gets in the groundwater, you know.” His friends went away chastened.

The years went by, and the guy repainted rooms, touched up the shutters, re-did the trim. The paint cans piled in his shed—a dozen, two dozen and more.

“You’re crazy,” his friends said. “Just throw these paint cans in the trash—a few this week, a few next week, a few the week after that. They’ll be gone in no time.”

“I’m not a polluter,” the guy said.

“Then take them to the paint disposal place,” his friends said. “Who wants old paint cans taking over his shed?”

“I’m going to take them to the paint disposal place,” the guy said, with a firmness that quailed his friends and cheered his heart.

More years passed. The pile of old paint cans grew ever higher, so great was the guy’s conviction.

In the fullness of time, the guy sold his house. Moving day approached, and he thought of the mountain of old paint cans in his shed.

“I am not a polluter,” the guy said. “In all these long years, I have never thrown a paint can in the garbage. Not one!” His voice trembled with more conviction than ever. “I am a busy man, and a good one. I am moving, for crying out loud! And the paint disposal place is many miles away.”

So under the cover of darkness he loaded all the paint cans in a borrowed truck and placed them—quietly, quietly—in the nearest construction dumpster.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


  1. Jonathan

    I thought for sure he was going to dig into the shed and the bottoms of the cans had rusted out.

  2. Mike

    Man you should see the paint cans at my house. Thing is my wife never runs out of things to paint. So we only have to dispose of empty cans which I can’t seem to do either.

    Now off to discover the meaning……………………?

  3. kay morrison

    i thought for sure he was going to home depot and buy that new stuff you put into paint cans that hardens paint so it is environmentally safe. bummer.

  4. Rob

    In the great state of Illinois, they’ve cut the paint recycling program out of the budget. Maybe I should make a paint run to a bordering state under the cover of darkness in a borrowed truck with a fake ID identifying me as a resident of that state so they will accept them.

    It ain’t easy being green.

  5. Aaron Roughton

    Alternate ending from my personal experience:

    …So in the cover of darkness he loaded all of the paint cans up and took them to his mother-in-law’s house. She had grown up without much, and she wouldn’t hear of wasting leftover paint. She would take the paint cans. She always did. Funny thing was that she never seemed to acquire a pile of cans like he did, no matter how many times she re-painted or took in familiy leftovers. Turns out growing up poor left her without as much regard for environmental responsibility. But what she did was her business.

  6. Jaclyn

    Ahh! Gorgeous! and… convicting. man…

    This is so deceptively simple. I was reading it intitially, enjoying the photo and thinking “Ooh, how charming!” Then… like Jason said… ouch.

    So now I’m wondering whether his poor friends will catch him the next day rust-handed. =)

  7. Jonathan Rogers


    In case anybody’s interested, the paint can story began with a conversation I had with a friend who told me about this guy who didn’t believe in divorce. For years he stood by his conviction–especially whenever somebody he knew got a divorce. But then he met a woman he liked better than his wife, so he got a divorce. It was the only black mark on his anti-divorce record, but it was a doozie. Reminded me of this other guy I knew who had these paint cans…

  8. Tony from Pandora

    So I think I understand now…

    The refusal to throw away paint cans equates to not reading the ‘Twilight’ series?

  9. Dan K

    not to make light of the fable but my mind won’t stop making alternate endings. So many, but I’ll settle with this one.

    As moving day approaches he bears down and loads up the pickup truck to the edges with remnant paint cans. Rattling through the town with noise to only be matched by a chorus of 8 y/o vuvuzela players. He gets to the paint recycling center only to read:
    “Closed due to lack of donations”.

  10. Jonathan Rogers


    How come nobody offers alternate endings for Russ Ramsey’s posts?

    I have to admit, however, that both Aaron and Dan K have offered excellent alternatives. If I remember correctly, Aaron won the contest when I posted a “Complete the Story” entry…You know, the time I actually wanted people to write alternate endings. I tease you. Any Rabbit Room reader is welcome to compose an alternate ending to anything I post.

  11. Aaron Roughton

    Jonathan, I have crafted alternate endings for 100% of Russ’s posts. However, they all turn out the same: Me and Russ having a hard conversation about how if he wants to join my Christian boyband the BeattiDudez, he’s going to have to cut the hair. I never have the heart to actually post it.

    As for your story, I was in no way trying to detract from it. It’s a brilliant fable that gave me a spiritual butt kick and immediately opened my eyes to my own stack of paint cans. My comment was an impulsive creative response indicating my own way of dealing. Thanks for posting. It moved me.

    One last note, you are right that I “won” the Complete the Story contest. I will look forward to receiving the promised prize of an autographed copy of Russ’s Ramm-Z glamor shot when I see you guys at Hutchmoot. I want the autograph to read “Aaron–may you morph into awesomeness like me. Your new best friend, Russ.”

  12. Aaron Roughton

    Here’s an example. I wrote this ending to the story that began Russ’s Easter Meditation (

    …Then I looked at the bird in my hands through the vapors of my own breathing. My heart sank as I realized that just because God can do something doesn’t mean that He will. But then something caught my eye. A flutter. A blink. Then feathers began to ruffle. In my hands I held a living creature, risen from the dead, finding new strength in its wings and breath in its lungs from the Creator Himself. I sat perfectly still as the small bird became aware of its surroundings, finding me with one eye, then the other. I could feel warmth through my gloves where there once was ice. And in a flurry it was gone, taken to flight.

    Well, almost gone. It never made it past my bangs. A light breeze blew my flowing hair forward across my shoulder and the tiny bird became entangled in a mass of dirty blond highlights. I screamed and began flailing wildly, fearing that my eyes would be pecked out as the bird screeched and flapped, until finally I collapsed into the snow and the bird sat restrained and terrified in an unnatural nest on the top of my head. He had wound himself into a hair bun.

    At that moment I remembered the words of my new best friend Aaron Roughton, spoken only a day before. He said, “Russ, you’re good. Darn good. We could use you in the BeattiDudez. Your flexibility puts a lot of life in your dancing, and your high notes are, well, really high. But you have to cut your hair. Your hair says ‘rocker.’ The BeattiDudez aren’t rockers, Russ. Not by a long shot. God wants you to be a BeattiDude. Are you going to let your hair hinder what God is doing? Are you going to let your hair come between you and the miracles of God?”

    It was so obvious to me then. Aaron was right, as usual, and God had used the resurrection of a frozen dead bird to prove it. God must really love Aaron.

  13. Laura Droege

    This post and the “alternate endings” made me laugh and think. The laughting part was pleasant; the thinking was painful. Made me wonder what strongly held convictions I would throw aside if they made my life difficult or inconvenient. This was a giggle, giggle, ouch!!! type of post.

  14. Russ Ramsey


    Canaan Bound, agreed! Aaron wins again. That’s, as they said in the original Toy Story, “double-prizes!” Aaron, you can pick then up from JR at the Hutchmoot. I think your new prize will involve paint.

    My hair never caused anyone harm– only jealousy. Nice to see I still got it!

  15. G. Wigler

    You know, if he had left the lids off the cans the paint would have hardened and then it would be ok to dispose of them in the trash……..solid paint cannot get into groundwater.

  16. Jill

    oh man! I read this earlier today and all was well. Then I read about the anti-divorce guy. yep. that was a doozie.

    I continued with my night and then it hit me. hard.
    I was poster girl for “anti-something”… until I did it.
    so… this is hugely convicting to me. I have confessed my dirty little secret to several friends…. but I still feel like a creep.
    Thank GOD for his forgiveness… and for fresh starts 🙂

  17. Ron Block



    Whatever the thing was that you did, it is forever erased from God’s consciousness – as far as East is from West. Faith is, to a large degree, “saying with” God. He says it – so we say it: When faith and feeling contradict, confess His statement as fact. When the feeling comes up again and again, we confess faith in God’s Fact again and again. Eventually the feeling gets the message, feels unwelcome, and slinks away to annihilation. The devil is going to continually hammer on those things that God has already forgotten in order to keep us from living in the present, relying on Christ, and being our real selves in spontaneity and freedom.

    Jonathan, loved your fable. It speaks to those times when we’ve “put a face on” (even a well-meaning one) in front of others, and then when no one is looking we’ve acted differently. Better, first, to not make a big deal out of the paint cans (parading our righteousness before men) and then secondly to do the right thing when no one is looking – because there is no such thing as “no one looking.” We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; the saints gone before and angels and demons and Father, Son, Spirit. No such thing, really, as a private moment.

  18. Jill

    thanks ron 🙂

    I’m pretty much “over” my lapse in judgement…. knowing that God has forgiven.
    I’m just sorry for my “witness” to others that may have been tarnished. But- hey… just a great reminder that we are all human. And I’m first to admit that I’m a pretty flawed human at that.

  19. Ron Block



    Isn’t it true sometimes that the harder we are “anti” something, the more likely we are struggling with that thing deep down. That is why we try to build such an efficient fence of an anti-attitude, thinking we are going to prevent ourselves from doing it. Literally, we think we are going to keep ourselves holy by our anti-ness. Swaggart, and several other fallen preachers, are good examples of this: overly tough on sexual sin, and then they explode with it. That’s what the Law does when we pick it back up to keep it on our human effort; it actually causes us to sin, because to attempt self-effort “holiness” is to disconnect our faith toward God.

    I think we all have to go through some sort of crash of “our witness” to others. We have to be divested of thinking “I am a human self that must be Christ-like by my effort.” A good fall into sin, if we take it rightly, goes a long way in making us more humble – it takes us closer to “Christ is my life and my indwelling righteousness” and away from do-it-yourself religion.

  20. Jonathan Rogers


    Sorry for the radio silence…been traveling. But it’s good to know I can always count on Ron to man the store. Thanks for the great discussion, everybody.

  21. Jonathan Rogers


    p.s. It’s true that Aaron is–to my knowledge, anyway–the best post commentator ever. (And, as Russ Ramsey can attest, the best friend ever).

  22. S.D. Smith

    More votes pouring in for Aaron Roughton as the best post commenter in history.

    Also, have you guys heard his album? Pretty good. Esp. his song “Baby Blue Eyes,” for which wrote an alternative ending.

    I like this fiction in the RR. Good job, Jr.

  23. Jonathan

    This posting section really is a small picture of the R.R. to me. It’s also what brings me back for more. Deep thoughts mixed with light hearted or amusing comments make for just the right flavor or texture. You could say I the R.R. is yummy but please don’t that would be ridiculous.

  24. Aaron Roughton

    Russ said, “My hair never caused anyone harm– only jealousy. Nice to see I still got it!”

    Now you know what is in my virtual paint cans Russ. Hair envy.

    Smith, I look forward to your alternate ending to Baby Blue Eyes. I’ll expect a copy at Hutchmoot.

    Jonathan, again, I sincerely appreciate this post and was responding to it honestly, not flippantly. Except the parts about Russ being my best friend, of course.

  25. Teresa Jenkins

    Wonderful posts and alternate endings! In my real life ending involving paint cans, the guy at the paint drop-off told me that I could pour water in the latex paint and pour it down the drain next time. So much for our ground water!

  26. Tyson Ochsner

    “When faith and feeling contradict, confess His statement as fact.”

    Ron, thanks for this gem in the midst of the comments about Jonathan’s great fable. I have been doubly blessed.

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