Life is a Puzzle

Puzzle Pieces
Puzzle Pieces

Life is not like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle. Recently, because I have been buying a house, selling a house, and preparing to move, I have been doing a lot of puzzle-solving. Not only have I been figuring out all the details of my proposed move, but I have also been completing jigsaw puzzles in order to relieve the stress. During this meditative practise it occurred to me that jigsaw puzzle-solving could be a metaphor for life.

When you start a puzzle, you just have a heap of pieces; some are face up, some are face down, and none of them is the right way round. That’s like the mishmash of things you are born with or born into. Your DNA, your place in the family, your health, where your family lives, social status, and so on. At the beginning, all of the characteristics of your personality and your life are there but are yet to reveal themselves.

Then, you have to find the edge pieces, so you go through the pieces one at a time, looking for the borders of your puzzle. In much the same way, as we develop through childhood and adolescence, we figure out the limits of our abilities, our skills, our talents, and our opportunities.  It’s nice to think that we can be whoever we want to be, but most of us find that our prospects are proscribed by money and education. So, we find out how far we can or cannot go. Even if we step outside the norms of our family or culture, we can’t do everything or go everywhere. In my case, I left home to go to art college but it turned out that I wasn’t a very good artist.  So, I found that edge piece.

Once we have more-or-less figured out the framework, we start in on the main part of the puzzle. When I do a jigsaw puzzle I like to focus on one area at a time. I gather up all the pieces of approximately the right colour and put them together while temporarily ignoring the rest. That’s how I think about my various forays into education, training, travel, and self-development. While I’m engaged in learning a particular skill, I tend to let other aspects of my life slide a bit. People close to me have to wait a while to get my full attention, but I do eventually refocus.

When I’m looking for a puzzle piece I start out by seeking the colour. If the picture is fairly uniform, though, I have to look for the shapes of the pieces instead of the design itself. Interestingly, that’s easier to do when I can’t easily see the colours. At my dining table, the overhead light shines directly on the pieces, reflecting off the shiny surfaces and obscuring the picture. That makes hunting for shapes much easier because I’m not distracted by what I think the piece should look like. This is like learning to give up the superficial and instead focussing on the essential. That’s true of the things we own as well as the people we have around us.  It also reminds me about learning not to make hasty assumptions, but waiting instead for substantive information. This is what I should have done in more than one relationship!

Sometimes, I find a piece that I think is both the right design and the right shape but it doesn’t fit the space. So, I put it down. Then later, I’ll pick it up again and try to make it fit, again. Sometimes I do this repeatedly, fruitlessly ignoring the evidence of past experience. I’m sure you can all think of a relationship like that. You know; the one where you think that if you just keep trying it will all work out. Gah! Just give it up.

Occasionally, you will look at all the pieces of the puzzle for a long, long time without finding one that fits. Then, you’ll get up and get a cup of tea (or whatever) and when you come back suddenly you are able to fit ten pieces right away. It’s like they moved themselves into your line of sight while you were gone. It’s funny how that happens. Sometimes you just need to take a break to be able to see what is right in front of you.

Along the way, we sometimes get help with our puzzles. I have very fond memories of my sister Carol doing jigsaw puzzles with me while in hospital waiting rooms, convalescing after an accident, and just hanging out together. Carol is very good at puzzles, and as she works she mutters such things as “I need a green piece with three innies and an outie.” Having a friendly helper in life and in solving puzzles is always good, and if you and they understand each other’s mutterings, so much the better.

Then, there is the time it takes to finish a difficult puzzle. It may sit on the dining table for days or weeks until you get it all together. There’s no real rush though. The joy of it is in the process of finding each piece, not in finishing. In fact, finishing is quite disappointing. In life, of course, when we finish there is nothing left for us to do or to discover, and it’s the doing and discovering that make life worthwhile. I am trying to make a point of doing new things and discovering new opportunities for myself. There may be a piece or two missing, but that’s ok.  It’s not about the finished picture. It’s about finding as many pieces as possible before I call it a day.


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