A friend told me about a recent family holiday and everything they did. She also told me that they had a few rainy days but that it was not a problem as the whole family then spent time building a big puzzle on the dining room table.
Although I have started and completed the odd puzzle here and there, I was never fond of building puzzles. Like Jim Fletcher said: “Some people do puzzles. We like to drink beers and cut cardboard”. I always had the feeling that some of the pieces were missing or that the pieces were in the wrong box and I was only convinced otherwise when the whole puzzle was completed.
I did some research on the internet regarding the “how” of building a puzzle. The majority of puzzle builders usually recommended that you find the corner pieces first then proceed to build the inside. There are others that say you must group the colors first after finding the corner pieces and building the outside frame. What I found very interesting was that of all the sites I visited for advice on how to build a puzzle (one site had 31 steps to build a puzzle- I wondered how many steps a 3000 piece puzzle would have…?), only one site suggested looking at the picture on the box as a clue to completing the puzzle.
The picture - the most important part as far as I am concerned; that picture on the box that guides you while you are trying to put the pieces together. Without that picture, even building a 200 piece puzzle might seem like an impossible task – not to even mention a 2000 or 3000 piece. A nightmare. Imagine trying to build a puzzle, even just sorting colours, without the picture on the box. It’s almost like travelling without knowing where you are headed; not knowing how many kilometres, not knowing your destination; not knowing what to pack, what to expect.
Somehow, our brains are designed to want to know where we are going. When we teach study methods, we tell students to first scan the text book, to get an overall view, before getting into the details. When we know where we are headed it is almost as if this knowledge makes the minor (or major) potholes and frustrations along the way more tolerable.
In corporate settings companies spend huge amounts on sending their employees to attend seminars on goalsetting – individual as well as company oriented goalsetting – realizing the value of knowing where you are going. The caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland commented that if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Knowing where you are going and seeing the bigger picture somehow enhances the chances of a succesful outcome.
Dave Guerrero said that understanding life is like trying to put together a puzzle with pieces that don’t fit. In a way I agree but I do get the feeling that life is rather a little, maybe a lot like building a puzzle without the picture on the box.
And we are tested. We experience frustration because it seems as if none of the pieces we have in front of us fit; things don’t seem to make sense. No matter how we try to manipulate the pieces in our hand, or try to squeeze them in to seemingly obviously existing holes, they don’t fit. We become impatient. Waiting is a difficult game. We don’t usually like to wait.
Spending a lot of money going on courses that teach you how to plan, how to set goals, and don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing - we should plan, we should set goals, realistic goals, then plan and work to achieve them, and then to experience the feeling of accomplishment when you have reached those goals, still does not seem to prepare us for when life happens. And when life happens, it is as if somebody has removed the box with the picture on it.
It is usually then, and this is confusing, when things get tough, when things don’t add up or make sense, when you can’t see the picture - that people usually tell you to look at the bigger picture, implying that if you look at the bigger picture, whatever mess is in front of you, might make a bit more sense which could lead to an increase in your level of patience and effort.
While we often feel that we don’t have clue about what the picture looks like, the good thing of “looking at the bigger picture” is that it implies a stand-back to pause, and think. Marilyn Vos Savant commented that people who work crossword puzzles, know that if they stop making progress, they should put down the puzzle for a while.This action seems to be difficult when it comes to life’s puzzles. We want it sorted out, we want it to make sense and we want it now. Standing back does however often lead to a fresh perspective. Sometimes we have to stand back and look at the pieces in front of us. Take some time. And also look back at the pieces of the puzzle that we have already built – what we have already accomplished up to now; to see how we’ve grown. My youngest brother always says “hindsight is always 20/20”.
I very often find myself thinking “if I only had this piece of puzzle then, six months or maybe a year earlier, I would have done this or that much differently”. The reality is however that you didn’t have this piece then. You have it now. And today is what you have.
Another problem we encounter while we are busy building puzzles in life is that we very often have our own picture of how things should or should not be. Because we cannot control events or others’ behaviour, things happen that don’t fit into our pictures of how we think it should be; it doesn’t make sense. We then try to squeeze or squash pieces into places and make them fit where they don’t necessarily fit; the way we think things should work. Our intentions may be very good; imagining our picture to be the best. In the process of trying to squeeze pieces in where they don’t fit, we damage the edges, possibly rendering them useless for their original purpose or places in other pictures. We get focussed on the parts that don’t fit, that don’t want to work out. Sometimes we feel like wiping all the pieces of the table, blaming it on the puzzle in stead of l considering the way we are building. And then when things happen I want to say – “no, that’s not supposed to be part of the picture”. Teenagers taking drugs to escape from reality, where or how does that fit into the picture? A family member who is diagnosed with untreatable cancer- where does that fit into the picture? A young innocent child is run over and killed by a drunk driver- where does that fit into the picture?
None of the cognitive and mathematical problem solving-skills we aquire through building puzzles as children helps us to solve the puzzles in life. Our logical reasoning does not seem to help us here. Even though we may have mastered the part-whole concept, we can not seem to apply it when life happens. Figuring out how these puzzles work seems to require another skill, on another level. Because the skills we learnt up to this point are mainly the skills we use to “work things out”.
We tend to be thrown off course. We should, however still on a cognitive, in stead of an emotional level make a decision to not only see things the way they are, but also to focus our energy on that what is in front of us, in the present moment. To constantly try and force pieces into how we think the picture should be, not only causes unnecessary stress and wastes energy but often ruins relationships because trying to squeeze pieces in where they don’t fit, causes damage. It does not imply losing hope, or parking your dreams. It simply means accepting things the way they are; being yourself; accepting people the way they are. It implies living fully today; focussing on the pieces that do fit.
Maybe that is the secret to building puzzles – the puzzles in life. According to Arthur Ashe you should “start where you are, do what you can with what you have”. And take time to look at where you started, how far you’ve come – how some of the pieces have fallen into place. Somebody once said that sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place. And you will see the picture. And it will be beautiful.