Puzzled

“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.

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Hope in Darkness

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“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” — Brene Brown

Every year in this season leading toward Christmas, when the days grow shorter and the nights exponentially longer, I think about darkness. Usually, I am thinking about the literal darkness that greets me in the morning and also accompanies me as I leave work at the end of the day. The mere lack of sunshine is enough darkness to provide fodder for spiritual reflection. Usually, I welcome these “dark days” as an opportunity to pause, to think about darkness as a metaphor, to remember that although light is what we typically strive for, we need to acknowledge – even accept – our dark places as well.

This year feels different. The news is filled with stories of our “dark side” as a human family – from Syria to Paris to Minneapolis and Chicago, from Colorado Springs to San Bernadino – our blood pools in the streets and our anger rages out of control.  Compounding that, it is full-blown election season in Iowa and we are bombarded with political squabbling of dubious gravitas and there is nowhere to hide.  This is the year of Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy – at best – appears to be “lie, bluster, name call, repeat”.

This December, my experience of darkness is not about seasonal metaphor. It is more palpable, more pressing – certainly considerably more DE-pressing – than typical. Despite the fact that I am far from the front lines on any of these issues (except the barrage of political rhetoric), my spirit is buffeted by the waves of ill-will, argumentation, hatred.

Where do I (we) find hope in this season of darkness? Does light exist, even in those moments when it is hardest to see?

Barbara Kingsolver says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  In other words, hope isn’t something you have, it is something you do (like love, like faith). In this sense, finding hope begins by looking within.

What do I hope for? I hope that love and right and reason and civilization win, in the end. I hope that peace reigns in both our hearts and in our world. I hope that, when difficult choices are presented to me by the darkness of our human failings, my actions will bring light instead of an increase of the dark.

But how do I “live right in it, under its roof”, once I’ve identified what I hope for?

I suspect the answer is deceptively simple; easy to conceive of but hard to do. For example, one day a couple of weeks ago, in the heat of Minneapolis protests over the death of Jamar Clark, I read that a woman I’ve admired for several years, Lisa Bender, stepped between a police officer’s gun and a protester. “I’m a council member. If you want to shoot someone, shoot me,” she said.  I’ve seen enough movies, read enough stirring novels of courage, to imagine taking such a step as a noble gesture. But in real life, that step had to cross a giant chasm of fear and uncertainty. And here’s the important part: it came not as a single act of courage; it was no “one and done” behavior. It came as part of a daily commitment of presence and engagement with her community, aligning herself with those whose voices are most in need of amplification to be heard.

Living under that roof shows just what kind of radical act hope can be.

I am inspired by Lisa’s example. However, many days I feel I barely have the energy to keep the machinery of my life operational. Radical hope feels outside my scope. Until I realize that holding my authentic center while being buffeted by the cyclones and sand devils of daily life can also be about living under the roof of my hope. My Facebook friend, Shannon, is a woman I’ve never met (long story). Her husband is an American service man, and they are stationed in England. After the attacks in Paris, in the first flush of anger and fear, she asked her friends to talk on her Facebook wall about the dynamic between maintaining safety and expressing compassion toward Syrian refugees. As one might imagine, there were a wide variety of responses. What I appreciated about Shannon’s response was that she invited dialogue rather than invective. She posted articles that were well articulated but came to a variety of conclusions. She didn’t foreclose on a predetermined answer. One could say it was just a lengthy Facebook thread – but in today’s climate, it felt like a ray of welcome light.

I am coming to believe it is a radical act to keep the light shining in my heart, when darkness threatens to take up residence there. Some days, it is enough to remember what we hope for – we can’t learn to live inside of something we can no longer see in the darkness that is swallowing us. Some days, we find the wherewithal to do more. In our world, it can be radical to act from hope rather than from despair.  When we do this, we are able to contribute some measure of light to the world around us – whether that takes the form of activism, engagement, charity, compassion, mercy, love or laughter.

In this season of darkness, I have hope that it will be enough.

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Note: This morning, just before posting this reflection, Lisa Bender posted a lovely reflection on Facebook. In part, she said: “One of the things about being a parent of little kids is that I can’t get sucked into that magnet because they need me to try and make all this bad shit stop before they get big enough to really see it. They force me to have hope and to act on that hope day in and day out in every little way I can.”

 

 

Igniting the Candle of Hope

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath
 
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It was approximately 3:15 a.m. when I awoke. The darkness was palpable. It felt alive to me, in spite of the comforting glow of my clock radio and the audible deep breathing of my sister in the other twin bed. I could feel the darkness pressing into me, a sense of evil intent in its probing fingers, like it was searching for a way to enter me and take me over. I felt desolately alone, as if my nearest friend was separated from me by a vast desert, rather than the two feet between our beds. And I felt fear – panicked terror really – the kind of fear that paralyzes your vocal chords and makes movement or escape impossible. The feeling of overpowering malignance directed toward me continued to grow, pressing down on me, reaching a crescendo that finally triggered my natural fight or flight instinct – I sat up in bed and hurled a brief sentence at the darkness.

Suddenly, there was a dawning of light in my solar-plexus. Light and warmth began radiating through my body. I could feel it filling me up until my body could no longer contain it. Energy sizzled along the surface of my skin, little hairs on my arms standing straight up from the static of it. The warmth, the energy, felt like love. I interpreted the energy as light, though I didn’t actually see light. The darkness, especially the feeling of evil intent, receded immediately.

I was certain that God had come to my aid in a moment of real crisis. I lay awake, bathed in warmth and love, wondering how such an experience could happen. Abject, shivering fear changed to this cocoon of love and aliveness in the matter of a split second.

The next day, I needed to talk to someone about this experience. I was only in high school, not really able to make sense of any of it on my own (I say, as if I could do so today!). So I called a (slightly) older friend I trusted implicitly. He came over and I poured out the whole story to him.

“Do you remember what you said when you sat up?” he asked. I said, “That’s the strange thing, it was gibberish – the only word I recognized was ‘Yahweh’. ” Then I told him what I thought I had said. My friend’s response was very matter-of-fact considering the next thing he told me. He said he had just taken a biblical Hebrew class at the major university where he was a student. He told me, “What you said is Hebrew and means, ‘God of our fathers, be with me.'”

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The experience I just recounted occurred in 1977 or 78, approximately 35 years ago. Over that three and a half decades, I’ve shared it with only a handful of people. For one, I’ve learned that most of us aren’t able – or even comfortable trying – to make sense of deeply spiritual or mystical experiences. For two, I’m not interested in developing a list of perfectly reasonable or scientific reasons I could have/might have/ perhaps did speak in a language I don’t know – and that seems to be where the few conversations I’ve had inevitably went. For three, I can remember the way I felt, but I can’t recapture the wonder of it. In fact, as with most numinous experiences, the more one discusses it, the less wondrous it seems.

After so many years of holding the experience close, why in the world am I now choosing to share it on a blog available for anyone to read?!

The weeks of late fall and early winter, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer, are a physical expression of an emotional reality: there are times when that which is light in our lives seems overtaken by darkness. We experience sadness, despair, fear.

What a strange and powerful force hope can be in a world where darkness invades our days. I was a silly, boy-crazy teenager that night when the darkness overcame me and I called for help, yet help came. Hope is like that: like the sudden flash of fire when a match is struck on a cold, black night. Like the warmth of arms encircling you when you thought you were completely alone. Hope dispells our inner darkenss. It doesn’t eradicate it, but hope pushes our heaviness back so that breath and joy are both available once again.

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  ~George Iles

This week, on advent wreaths the world over, people are lighting the candle of hope. In my  heart, I am choosing to recall the times that my cries have been answered, and believing with the hope of faith that they will be again. In my home and my interactions with others, I’m asking:

How might this world light up if hope were allowed to blossom in every heart? And how can I, today, add to the measure of hope in the lives and the world I am part of?