Sunday, January 05, 2014

500 pieces of small, oddly shaped cardboard: Lessons from jigsaw puzzles

I'm a big fan of jigsaw puzzles. They're a pleasant, relatively inexpensive way to deal with the fact that it's 5 degrees outside. I've done three during this winter break, and I've got two more waiting to be done. (Parachutes and ice cream cones--both a nice challenge.) I have been known to spend hours spread out on the floor or the kitchen table trying to turn 500 cardboard pieces into a picture, a documentary playing in the background.

But I'm not the kind of person who saves puzzles after I do them. I don't have puzzle glue, or any desire to frame and display a completed puzzle. Because then I would be denying myself the pleasure of completing the puzzle again.

Because I do that. I complete a puzzle multiple times before sending it to the DI and buying another one from the dollar store. Over the winter break, while I was working on a particularly challenging bit of a jigsaw puzzle, I started to wonder what the appeal actually was. Maybe it was the general sense of cabin fever I was already experiencing, but I realized how insane completing a jigsaw puzzle actually is, especially if you don't save it. Why spend HOURS of time sorting through five HUNDRED pieces of small, oddly shaped cardboard, in order to put them together to create a picture that you will then destroy, putting all five HUNDRED pieces of small, oddly shaped cardboard BACK into the box?

Isn't this the kind of thing that certifiably insane people do?

For a while I thought that it had something to do with the visual aspect of it. It's a fun and interesting brain exercise to try to match shapes and patterns and colors. There is also the human imperative to order and create. But none of these reasons were quite enough to justify my pleasure in completing jigsaw puzzles.

But the last time I emptied a box of 500 pieces of small, oddly shaped cardboard, it hit me. I figured out the appeal.

It's the satisfaction of completing a seemingly incomplete-able task.

This is going to sound a little crazy, and maybe I've been inside for too long, but come with me on this.

When you open a jigsaw puzzle box, it's daunting. Every one of those pieces looks up at you as if to say, "We are chaos and you will never make sense of us. This is an impossible task and you are a mere mortal. Just close the box again, knowing that we defeated you." But you empty the box anyway. You sort through and find the edge pieces. You put the border together. You find the pieces that connect to the border. And the pile of chaos gets smaller, and the voices that say "This is impossible" get quieter. And then suddenly, you're fitting the last piece and you've done it. You've made sense of the chaos. You've accomplished the impossible task.

I don't save puzzles as a witness to my ability to accomplish impossible tasks. I take them apart so that I can have another opportunity to remind myself of my ability to accomplish impossible tasks.

And also to remind myself that it's okay if most of my accomplishments aren't permanent.

As Latter-day Saints, we teach that the things we do have an eternal impact. But we also teach that the things of the mortal world are mortal. That house you built will crumble. The wealth you've accumulated will become meaningless. Our sun does have an expiration date. Granted, it's 5 billion years from now, but when that time comes, all of the stuff we've created will wither and disintegrate. Every puzzle we've ever completed will be taken apart and put back into the cosmic box somewhere. But that's okay. Because the puzzle isn't the thing. What we become by completing the puzzle is the thing. There's something permanent in what we become.

Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
-- Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

photos via and via


Anna Harrison said...

Boom. You nailed it with that ending paragraph- our temporal lives being taken apart and put back into a box- love it. However, I still personally hate to put together puzzles. ;)

Jules said...

"And also to remind myself that it's okay if most of my accomplishments aren't permanent."

Sing it, sister.