My Tradition of Solving Jigsaw Puzzles

In my childhood, putting together a jigsaw puzzle was a family event, especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. In keeping with that tradition, I completed the puzzle above the last week of 2020. It was a small victory, something I could do at the end of 2020 to make it feel a little bit normal.

Now I realize the end-of-the-year jigsaw puzzle tradition was likely in part a ploy on my mother’s part to keep the kids from fighting after a week of vacation from school and no more sugar treats to look forward to. Or at least it kept the fighting in a part of the house she could observe. But over the years I’ve discovered many lessons that came to me through the annual tradition of putting together jigsaw puzzles. They all boil down to one overarching lesson:

Don’t Get Stuck on Only One Way to Look at the Puzzle

#1—Don’t Be Afraid to Turn the Pieces Upside Down

I was often disappointed when I was sure I had found the right place for the puzzle, only to find out it only looked like it fit. Mom taught me a trick to be sure two pieces fit together—she told me to turn them over so I could view the backs of the pieces where the colors and patterns of the puzzle couldn’t trick my eyes and brain.

#2—Don’t Get Distracted by the Color of the Pieces

When the space for a missing piece appears next to a piece of a uniform color, it’s easy to look for another piece of the same color. Sometimes that edge is just where the color of the picture ends.

#3—Don’t Give Up. Stick with It Until You Succeed

Even if there are pieces missing, keep going, putting one piece in after another. Giving up is a temptation, but the feeling of success, even finding where the missing pieces should go, is worth the struggle.

Are There Bigger Lessons for This Moment?

I began writing this piece when I was distracted by the news on my television as mobs stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. And on reflection, I realize my jigsaw puzzle lessons can be applied to the very large puzzle (I prefer that word to problem) needing to be put together now—our nation.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

How do I see my jigsaw puzzle lessons applying here?

#1—Don’t Be Afraid to Turn the Pieces Upside Down

I don’t suggest an anarchist’s approach of overturning everything in order to start over. This lesson for me means it can be useful to do the opposite of what I initially am tempted to do. In this case, I hope that instead of shouting at one another about our different opinions, we can all begin spending more time listening to one another.

We need to listen until it is clear to our conversation partners that we hear them. That we understand without judgment. That doesn’t mean we will always agree, but it has been too easy to judge based on assumption. It’s time to evaluate based on understanding in order to respect one another.

#2—Don’t Get Distracted by the Color of the Pieces

The pundits and reporters have conveniently illustrated the divisions within our nation by coloring the states in shades of red or blue. But when they zoom in on the big smart screens to see the smaller divisions within the states, the counties and the cities, the truth that no state is solidly one color or the other becomes clear. The states are all really shades of purple.

We need to look more deeply into the divide between our cities and our countryside. Neither of those groups can survive without the other. We need to build bridges based on understanding and respect.

#3—Don’t Give Up. Stick with It Until You Succeed

Divisions within the United States have always been there all the way back to when the first immigrants arrived and carved out their separate pieces of land and established their own new ruling systems. Yet, in spite of those differences, the first 13 colonies recognized they had more to gain by joining together against a common enemy. And the 13 grew to 50. Perhaps in the next decade the District of Columbia will become our 51st state.

Before our country reached its first century, differences of opinions had torn the nation apart and brought brother against brother in civil war. While the peace that came at the end of that war wasn’t quite the happily-ever-after image our elementary school textbooks suggested, the process of binding old wounds in order to face greater problems together began. We are still facing the challenges of breaking down the systemic racism that got baked into the end of our Civil War.

We cannot give up. Our democracy was the most incredible gift our founding fathers could have bequeathed to us. It was not perfect then. It is not perfect now. But if we stop working to correct it, we won’t be able to see the spaces representing the missing pieces we must continue looking for to complete it.

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