In the cafeteria at work, there’s always a jigsaw puzzle in process on one of the tables. It’s there for anyone who wants to work on it. When one is finally complete it remains on display for a day or two, and then it’s time for the next.
I know – as a metaphor, the jigsaw puzzle has been played out. “We all have a unique role, life is a team effort, every piece is necessary, blah blah blah.”
What struck me recently wasn’t the metaphor of the puzzle itself, but of how we approach putting it together. Specifically, I was pulling together some pieces that looked like they would complete a tiger (they always seem to be “nature” puzzles with animals socializing in very unnatural harmony) when a co-worker commented, “We’re still working the edge pieces.”
That’s the most common approach, isn’t it? Finding the edge pieces, defining the shape of the thing. We like knowing the boundaries and limits in which we are expected to operate.
I believe that the human condition involves life breaking us into pieces and us putting them back together. Of course the number, shape, and size of the pieces vary by each person’s life experience. Most of us start reassembling ourselves by focusing on our borders – the exterior that assures people we know what shape we’re supposed to be. Doing so comforts us and comforts others. Maybe it comforts us in large part because it comforts others and reduces tension between us.
But not everyone is able to start with the borders.
Sometimes our box has been torn open so recklessly that pieces have been flung all over the place and we have to start with what we can find; years can be wasted burrowing under the couch cushions and clawing behind the dresser thinking we have to have all the pieces before we can start assembling any of them.
And sometimes there’s a moment of recognition and clarity – a chance to tame those tiger bits and reduce the chaos – that’s too good an opportunity to resist. Somebody is going to urge us to finish the border first (or even start working on it for us) because our progress doesn’t unfold like they want it to. Yes it might be more socially acceptable to meet expectations, but better to fix what we can when we can than to ignore the tiger and lose the opportunity for who knows how long.
Of course this all assumes we know something about solving puzzles. Most of us cut our teeth on those four-piece jigsaws for toddlers. You know the kind – large, easy to handle pieces and simple pictures. Probably covered in drool. Our parents gift us with simple challenges so we can practice and work our way up to the hard stuff.
Not everyone is so lucky. Maybe no one ever taught you all the pieces were actually meant to be integrated into something bigger. Maybe they didn’t provide you (or accidentally or deliberately destroyed) a picture of what life should (or could) look like, so the outcome is a mystery. Maybe they were careless and some pieces are torn or damaged or lost or burned … and gone forever. Maybe you drew life’s short straw and your first puzzle is five thousand pieces all the same color with no edges; surely there are some puzzle enthusiasts who would love that, but most of us aren’t up to the challenge.
If we are unfortunate enough to start out with one of those really tough puzzles and no training, it may take a long while of handling those pieces one at a time before realizing they are incomplete parts of a greater whole – a whole we might not be able to begin to envision, let alone start putting a border around. To other people it might look like we’re sifting aimlessly through a pile they’re sure they could easily begin to solve. If they take the time to learn about the challenges of our particular puzzle, will they walk away? Fix it to their own satisfaction while leaving us still bewildered? Or do the hard work of helping us help ourselves?
So start with the edge pieces. Or the tiger. Or just by figuring out that a solution and strategy are possible. And for goodness sake don’t worry about puzzles that aren’t yours – whether to compare or to judge. Because once you get your puzzle together, you’ll discover it’s really just a single piece of an even larger puzzle. Whatever progress we make, there’s more to be made. It’s not only ourselves we’re rebuilding, it’s the entire broken world.
Peace by piece.