“A puzzle with a solution is a game. A puzzle without a solution is a work of art.” –Marty Rubin

My friend Wendy made a passing comment to me in December about her enjoyment of online jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember the context, but it wasn’t as if we had a lengthy discussion about it – she mentioned it and we moved on to something else.

Fast forward to January. I found myself, most evenings, restless and fidgety. Too tired to go out, too wired and worried to relax. Wendy’s comment about jigsaw puzzles popped into my mind one evening, and I immediately downloaded an app for my Kindle. That first week, I not only did the daily mystery puzzle (no picture to tell me what I was putting together), I also put together three or four easier puzzles a day. I was so obsessed with these puzzles that my brain began processing normal objects all day long as if they were puzzle pieces needing to be fit together (the same thing happened, briefly, in the early 90s when I became addicted to Tetris). I realized that this was not a good sign. Gradually, I increased the difficulty level and reduced the number of puzzles, until I hit a steady groove of completing one puzzle a night.

As stressors amp up in my own life, compounded by the stress we are all experiencing on the political landscape, I feel almost a compulsion to solve the daily puzzle. When I finish it, especially if it is particularly challenging, I feel a sense of accomplishment and completion – a brief but satisfying relief of anxiety.

As my anxiety has deepened, my sleep patterns have shifted. I fall asleep for a few hours then wake, sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., for up to two hours. I’ve developed a bad habit of looking at social media in this interregnum between periods of sleep. I’ve read late-night screen-time is not good for my brainwaves and I know from my heart rate it is terrible for my emotional state.

The past couple of nights, rather than logging onto Twitter, I’ve been thinking about my sudden fixation with jigsaw puzzles. Why this particular activity at this particular time? At various points in the past, I’ve similarly questioned my Tetris addiction, my repetitive binge watching of “Felicity” and “Ally McBeal”, the weird card-counting solitaire game I invented one winter…and each time, the first answer I’ve hit upon has been a variation on the theme of control. In particular, when I feel as if I am inadequately meeting the challenges confronting me (i.e. under-prepared, under-skilled, and/or under-resourced), I have a tendency to take refuge in some meaningless activity that allows me to feel even a minimal level of mastery. I have everything I need to solve a jigsaw puzzle:

  • there are borders/boundaries; I know where they are and how to identify them;
  • I have all the necessary pieces (especially on my Kindle, where random pieces don’t end up on the floor or in the cracks between my couch cushions);
  • the variables are limited – basically, I find the right spot for each piece based on it’s immutable color and shape.

Wouldn’t it be nice if managing people or politics or my own fears and insecurities was as easy? How would it feel in other areas of my life to engage in a single activity that has shape, form, a clear goal and an easy way to assess that I’ve successfully achieved it? That might just be my definition of heaven on earth. Instead, my life is filled with complexities, from the people I interact with to the projects I engage with to the mission I try to live and serve. There are no immutables here: everything is changeable, everything shifts and forms and reforms into different shapes and very few of my tasks are of the kind that can ever be considered “finished”.

I said the first answer I hit upon was about control. Another answer for this fascination with jigsaws, which came to me in the quiet moments of wakefulness the other night, goes deeper than my control issues. This second answer is about interconnection and interdependence. Living in a “post-truth” world, where nuclear aggression is suddenly back on the table and, even in Iowa, the protests are loud and contentious, I feel the need to seek out models for a different way of being and interacting. Jigsaw puzzles are an excellent candidate. Each piece is unique, specifically both itself AND an integral part of a much larger whole. Without connection, the full picture cannot be viewed. Each piece is interdependent with every other piece in helping the whole image to coalesce into something meaningful.

If I am interdependent with all the other pieces of this jigsaw puzzle we call the universe, if we are all part of the same whole, then the very things that I am fearful of and rail against are part of that same whole; by extension they are part of me. Seen in this light, my sudden obsession with completion of puzzles becomes a quest for wholeness in a fractured world.

It appears that my commonplace problems and my deeper existential anxieties often surface and make themselves known to me through sudden behavioral anomalies. They enter my days practically unnoticed at first, disguised as simple distractions. It is only when I have (or take) the time to question what is happening, then to slow down and get quiet enough to hear the answers, that I begin to understand myself. But what do I do with this understanding?

After the election in November, Martha Beck published an article titled, “From Inside the Darkness“, in which she says:

“My job today is to feel all the parts of me that are like the darkest parts of my profoundly divided country, my profoundly divided species. It is to listen to them, to understand them until my own fear, anger, and sorrow dissolve into the light of compassion.

I can only do this inside myself–but that will be enough. It will be enough because one healed person broadcasts an energy that can pull dozens, hundreds, millions of people out of their own darkness.”

She goes on to state, “Compassion, friends, is the most revolutionary power on earth–not simpering and weak, but magical, powerful, the very force of Creation.” That compassion, according to Beck, must first be extended toward ourselves: compassion for our imperfections, our less-thans, our wish-I-weren’ts, and our hate-that-I-ams. When we extend the healing energy of compassion to ourselves, our little piece of the puzzle shines – and that shining light then radiates into the other pieces with which we connect.

It would be silly to suggest that I will heal the world by putting puzzles together on my Kindle. That said, thinking about why those puzzles have been occupying so much of my time has proven fruitful, and has led me to think differently about the divisions in my heart, my life and our world. It has reminded me that the way forward is one of healing and compassion. As the old song goes, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.” Let it begin in me.

Don’t Stop, Believe In…

“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”  — Kevin Costner as minor league catcher Crash in Bull Durham

In 1988, when the movie Bull Durham was released, my friends and I immediately fell for Kevin Costner’s character, Crash. He was everything we thought a love-interest should be: romantic yet rough around the edges, seasoned, able to see through the extraneous into the heart of things. That the movie was as much about baseball as love (maybe even more so – I haven’t watched it in years) just added a dimension of the all-American to an unconventional love story.

Thirty years later, I’ve not forgotten how I felt the first time I watched Costner deliver Crash’s “I believe” speech. It wasn’t just that I was young and he was good looking, though I’m certain that played a part. More, I think the speech resonated with viewers because we appreciate it when people simply, even boldly, declare what they believe in.

Every day, lately, I turn on the news or sign on to social media and I find anger and outrage. A lot of people are talking about what they don’t believe in (myself included). I’m not saying that it isn’t important to speak out – what we are against is every bit as important as what we are for. However, I have to find some balance because I feel, a lot of the time these days, like I’m tumbling into a dark abyss. Remembering a normal day a year ago feels like looking down a dark tunnel toward a very bright light. That isn’t normal, even if it is an understandable reaction to the current state of world affairs.

“I believe that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade… And try to find somebody whose life has given them vodka, and have a party.” — Ron White, comedian

While I haven’t actually consumed any vodka-lemonades lately (I may have to rectify that oversight!), I have been reminded that friends and community are a great antidote to abyss-tumbling. A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend for a storytelling event sponsored by a local nonprofit called The Hook. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear other people’s stories, to learn about what they believe – what they are for and against in their lives. There’s a wonderful alchemy that happens with storytelling in that kind of community setting – it becomes incredibly difficult to see the storyteller as “the other”, or worse, as an enemy. Even if what they are espousing or seem to believe is foreign or antithetical to my experience and firmly held beliefs, that alchemy allows us to connect through our shared humanity and our imperfections.

Last weekend, I spent Saturday night visiting friends. When the clock came around to bedtimes for the two children, I volunteered to tuck them in. One prefers being sung to, and requested my greatest hits (“The one about horsies”, “the one about the dragon”) while the older child prefers made-up stories while having her back scratched. These ordinary, homey moments with loved ones were a balm to my worried, weary soul.

Did the world miraculously change either of those nights while I was experiencing the warmth and love that community and friendship offer? Nope. What did change was my perspective. I was reminded that I am resilient. I was reminded that love is a powerful force in individual lives and experiences. Extending that to the larger community of which we are all a part, love is a powerful force for good. Please don’t misunderstand me when I use the word “love”. I am not referring only to the expression of intimate feelings shared between individuals – though that is the deeply personal experience that opens us to the much more vast and encompassing force of love.

I believe that love is a cosmic force that permeates every particle of creation. I believe that the degree to which I am able to act and react from a place of love will determine the degree to which I make a positive contribution to my world. I believe that the more ways we find to connect with others, to form webs of connection throughout the various groups and communities of which we are a part, the more we will effect positive outcomes for and with one another.

I believe that loving connection is how I will find much needed balance in those moments when I am most afraid of tumbling into darkness.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. ” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Personally Speaking…

“We often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.” – Dalai Lama

Last night, I took Indian food to a friend’s house for dinner. It was a chaotic meal, with her four kids requiring varying degrees of attention (and employing tactics from screaming to tears to yelling “Mom” in a rapid-fire stream of syllables from the top of the stairs). In other words, a normal evening with a growing family.

Eventually, everyone began to quiet down. My friend and I moved from the kitchen to the living room at the urging of her three-year-old, who wanted to cuddle with her mom on the soft furniture. After a few minutes, during a lull in conversation, the little girl looked me directly in the eye and said, “You go home!”

Both my friend and I burst out laughing. My friend said, “Honey, that wasn’t a kind thing to say!”, but the little one was unrepentant, whining, “But I’m tired and I want everyone to go to bed!”

So I left, chuckling to myself about the directness of a three-year-old.

As I drove home, I thought about how silly it would have been for me to take the little one’s order to leave personally, because even though it was directed at me, it wasn’t about me. She was just trying to make her needs known to the adults in the room. I was glad that her mother’s correction was gentle.

People who have known me all my life, most notably my siblings, will tell you that I haven’t always been so able to let things roll off me. In fact, for much of my life I’ve tended to take most things personally. As a kid, it was hard for me to see something good happening to or for someone else as anything but a slight to me. If someone said, “Boo!” to me, it hurt my feelings. The occasional instances of true injustice left me sputtering with nothing to say but, “That’s not fair!”

Over time, though, I’ve been learning to adjust my perspective. If I catch myself thinking thoughts that overly-personalize the nonpersonal – like traffic or weather patterns – I can now laugh at myself and stop that thinking in process. No, every slow or timid driver does not have a vendetta against me which leads them to somehow cut in front of me. No, it doesn’t only rain because I have outdoor plans. No, that complaint about “some people” I walked in on at work wasn’t about me. Learning to put these nonpersonal issues into perspective has helped me begin to see that even things that feel or are, perhaps, intended to be personal are often not about me, either.

Once, a friend sent me a scathing email, accusing me of nefarious intentions and intentionally cruel behaviors. I was devastated. My immediate reaction was to sit down and write a tearful, point by point rebuttal to prove that these accusations weren’t true. After reading what I had written, I erased it. It somehow felt wrong – I had said, repeatedly, that the things I was accused of were complete fabrications and bore no resemblance to me, my intentions or my behaviors. But wouldn’t a friend know this?

The longer I sat with this situation, the more it became clear to me. Most of my friend’s email actually revealed her fears and her implicit (and unchecked) assumptions. Most of it truly had very little to do with me. Once my perspective shifted and I realized that the email projected onto me what she feared or was insecure about, I was able to respond in a less defensive way. I waited 48 hours or so before responding. I took time to question myself about each part of her accusations – what pieces were actually about me? what was fair? were there parts that I needed to own? what required direct response from me? how could I phrase my response such that it expressed my concern, compassion, and truth without projecting my insecurities back at my friend? I could not control her feelings or her response, but I hoped to move our conversation back onto level ground, where we could both remember that we were friends – that our intentions toward one another were positive, despite our human failings to express those perfectly in either words or deeds.

I have been thinking about this tendency to take things personally a lot lately. As social media and other forms of public discourse have taken a more incendiary and adversarial tone, it behooves me to remember that much of what is being posted, re-posted, commented upon, is coming from someone elses’ worry, fear, or insecurity (or, in the case of some outlets, purposely playing on those). When my friends are rude or incendiary, is it their intent to hurt me? When I am those things, is it my intent to wound the very people I care most about? I hope that I will be able to answer these questions in the negative – my friends are not purposely hurting me, nor am I purposely hurting them. So, how do we proceed?

I know I don’t have the answers. What I am trying to do is not take anything personally if it isn’t addressed to me personally. So, I assume that general postings/repostings on someone else’s social media wall or feed aren’t about me. They may certainly speak to me, but aren’t intended to hurt me specifically. I try to be sensitive about posting blasting rants full of name-calling and wild invective (sometimes, I’m not a good judge of this when I am emotionally reacting to news, but I am trying). Whenever possible, when I start to feel hurt or attacked, I stop and question my response – is this really about me?

The thing is, for some, all of this discord is nonsense. (We’ve all seen the posts asking Facebook to go back to being a place for feel-good news.) For others, politics IS personal. Often, the dividing line is how directly you see some opinion or legislation impacting your own life or lives you care about. Or how directly it touches on your most deeply held values and beliefs. This is true for most of us, regardless of political leanings. If one person believes that they are fighting for their life, while the other believes they are having a philosophical argument, that unequal amount of “skin in the game” will have a direct impact on the interaction – and it almost ensures that feelings will get hurt. For me, it remains important to recall that I am talking to, am in relationship with, a fellow human being about whom I care. A close second point to keep in mind: none of us, me included, has perfect insight.

The times I can avoid taking the other person’s comments, postings, statements as deeply personal – then see my way clear to a compassionate yet truthful response – are the times when real communication happens. Getting to that level is vitally important to moving forward as opposed to ending in an invective-filled, anxiety-inducing, tear-producing stalemate of an argument.

As I prepare to post this reflection, I’m aware that some readers will disagree with me or take issue with something I’ve said. I’m prepared for that every time I post to this blog. But please know that I am deeply willing to engage in respectful dialogue – even difficult and gut-wrenching discussion of our beliefs – with you. Please accept that my intent is positive and motivated by care. Also know that I am trying not to take our differences personally; rather, I hope to find in them an opportunity for personal and collective growth. I can’t help but believe that this is what our world needs more of right now.