Do you like doing jigsaw puzzles? When I was growing up, chicken pox, measles, and mumps were still common childhood illnesses. As soon as symptoms appeared, the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle came out of some secret hiding place in our home. Its purpose was to focus small bites of my attention and to keep my hands too busy to scratch! Puzzles are a low tech, compelling way to engage when physical energy is limited but focus is not.
My body remembers how it feels to have the lethargy of a low temperature — a sign that my energy was diverted to the inner work of fighting infection. There's a muted sense of vitality and the ability to focus for only brief periods at a time — the perfect fit for doing a complex puzzle.
It all starts with emptying the box so 1000 individual puzzle pieces tumble onto the table. And there’s a palpable combination of excitement and intimidation. Our family's unspoken agreement is that before anyone begins to fit pieces together, we turn all the shapes right-side up and sort them so those with straight edges are all on the perimeter. The strategy is to connect the outside frame of the puzzle, then move to fill in the middle. But the temptation to fit pieces together is too great to ignore. That's the fun — selecting a shape and scanning for a match with its form and color in mind. When two fragments catch your eye and fit, it’s a big win!
The inner challenge of healing inflammation matches the outer workings of assembling a fragmented picture. In both cases, little by little, wholeness is restored.
I've read that puzzles exercise the part of the brain responsible for eye-hand coordination and short-term memory. There are studies that show how configuring these brightly colored cardboard pieces enhances creativity, problem solving, and motor skills. Apparently puzzle building is quite therapeutic. But that's not why we do it.
Jigsaw puzzles are part of family togetherness. On our summer vacation, instead of watching TV we crowded around the coffee table mornings and evenings, laughing and encouraging one another, as the fragmented pieces on the table assumed the form of the photo on the box.
Jigsaw puzzles are a great metaphor for life. Sometimes we go through stretches of time when it seems not a lot — if anything at all — fits together. Different aspects of life feel fragmented: work, family, friends, travel, rest, exercise, interests, and even hobbies. But we know from doing jigsaw puzzles that as we work on the individual pieces, the larger picture takes form. And collaborating with others is helpful and supportive.
Puzzles remind us to trust that with patience, skill, and perseverance, all of life’s pieces will come together. And it’s great to be reminded that technology is not the answer to every kind of problem solving.