September 16, 2005

The Great Jigsaw Puzzle

When I was a kid, one of my fondest memories of summer vacation was when there was bad weather. As a family, my brothers and parents and I would gather around a bridge table and pull out a multiple-sided jigsaw puzzle, tipping over the box to empty the 500 or 1,000 pieces onto the table.

We'd pick out all the straight-edged pieces first, of course, and while one or two of us began piecing together the border, others of us would look for pieces that had distinguishing characteristics, which could easily be matched to the puzzle's boxtop: the bright blue eyes of a kitten; the weave of a basket; the sunny yellow of a goldfinch's wings.

Bit by bit, images from within the center of the puzzle would be pieced together as mini-puzzles. Simultaneously, the border of the puzzle would be brought together according to its edges, bumps, and colors. Eventually, inevitably, some part of the border would match up with one of these mini-puzzles and we'd move together to join the two that had been rent asunder from last summer when we had worked on it...

Each of us in my family had a different knack or preference for what part of the puzzle to focus on. My mom and older brother would reach for the border pieces. My dad might stretch open his large hands to grasp all the pieces that had a smidgeon of a certain color, them pile them up near him, creating little piles of colors along the edge of the table. My twin brother and I would attend more to the details of a certain bird or flower or castle on the boxtop.

As the regions of the puzzle were pieced together by our individual talents, at some point one of us would recognize that two of the regions could be joined, and we'd redouble our efforts to figure out how to make them fit. I often found myself sifting through individual pieces not yet designated to an area or to an individual, looking for the connective piece that would join the regions together.

Each summer, with each puzzle we worked on, I would experience the success of working together to restore a thousand scattered pieces into a cohesive whole once more. It was one of the few tasks we did as a family.

These days, some 30 years later, I am still surprised by how much I enjoy working on a jigsaw puzzle when someone else is working with me, despite our different approaches to piecing the thing together.

I sometimes think of corporate discernment like this:

God's will is like the picture on the boxtop of a great jigsaw puzzle. And each Friend engaged in the discernment process around a specific topic may have a few of the pieces in her or his hand. Bit by bit, then, we share the pieces of the Divine puzzle, placing them on the community table around which we have gathered. We take turns handling the pieces, twisting them, gathering them, moving them together or apart, wanting to make sense of them:

Do the pieces seem to fit together as part of a micro-whole?
Do patterns carry over from one piece to another?
Who might be holding a piece but has not yet had an opportunity to place it on the table?
Do we share our ideas openly of what other pieces to look for, of what other processes are needed in order to fill in the missing pieces?
Do we think that
we have all the necessary pieces rather than allowing that perhaps someone else has a needed piece to bring to the table?
How do we know what picture is on the Divine Boxtop anyway?
How do we agree we are piecing the "right" Boxtop together?
It seems to me that ultimately, we have to rely on each other's ability to discern when pieces fit together well and when they seem to be forced.

It seems to me that some of us have the gift of being able to see the Divine Boxtop earlier than others. And it seems to me that some of us have the gift of being able to extrapolate what the Boxtop might be from even a single piece of the puzzle.

But this is a given: if we keep our pieces to ourselves, we are likely to draw the wrong conclusion, piece together an incomplete puzzle, or force pieces into places that don't belong.



David Bridger said...

What a delightful analogy, Liz! I remember those rainy days, with all my family in our holiday chalet doing those same jigsaws. Warm and fuzzy memories and the smells of damp clothing, damp dogs, and hot chocolate. Mmmm.

I remember that often a piece would fit into a space quite comfortably, early in the process, only to be replaced later. It was the same shape as the space, and it looked fine with the information available at the time, but as the picture became clearer it was plain to see that it had a rightful place in a different part of the puzzle.

Liz Opp said...

Mmm. You're right, I've had that experience too. Thanks for adding another piece, David!


Mark Wutka said...

Wow, Liz, that's a great analogy! I often feel like some people aren't interested in working a puzzle, but in playing 20 questions.

twila said...

Lovely analogy. Makes me think -- it sure would be tough to fit those pieces together if there was no variation in the design, wouldn't it? Yet, so often there is a tendency to want to "standardize" things, wiping away the variations of diversity.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know some people like them, but I wouldn't even start a puzzle that was all one solid color or that all the pieces were exactly the same shape.

To continue the metaphor (which I love), it's important that we be working with pieces that are all from the same puzzle - it's a lot harder when two puzzles get mixed up in the same box.

It's also a lot harder when someone has taken some of the pieces to another table to build little houses or whatever.

I like to look for what colors go together, but my son prefers to look for shapes that fit together. I have to let go of telling him to do it my way, because they are both valid approaches. Even if I am his mother and I've been doing puzzles for a lot longer than he has and I only have his best interests in mind...

Also, a distinction: I can do a puzzle all by myself. It will take a lot longer, but I can eventually create the whole picture because it is a finite object. I can't really do it wrong and think I'm done; the pieces will show me my errors. The same is not true for spiritual discernment.

Peterson Toscano said...

Lovely thoughts especially as I was just at a weekend long retreat with about 65 members of my meeting. Lots of jigsawing went on as we sought to build the blessed community.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks to all of you for adding your own piece to the puzzle-metaphor. In some ways, we are piecing together a puzzle about piecing together a puzzle!

I wish I had more energy to respond to each of you more personally, but my plate is a little too full these days... For those readers who have blogs, I hope I'll be able to catch up with yours soon!

Thanks to everyone for stopping by.


Contemplative Activist said...

I'm a bit late in commenting - but that's a really wonderful thought. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Great posting -- in fact I recommended to our bible study for their perusal.

as for the passage you were asking about:

NRSV Deuteronomy 19:14. You must not move your neighbor's boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.

and also see:

NRSV Deuteronomy 27:17. "Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor's boundary marker." All the people shall say, "Amen!"

Paul L said...

You say: "God's will is like the picture on the boxtop of a great jigsaw puzzle." Yes, in the sense that all flesh will (eventually) see it together.

But if you've lost the cover and don't know what the finished puzzle is supposed to look like, or only have a dim memory of the cover long ago before it was lost (which I think is the case for most of us most of the time), then it's way more of a challenge, isn't it? You have to simultaneously look at the particular (does this piece fit into that one?) and the universal (where does this piece or region fit into the whole?) in order to progress.

And, without knowing the ultimate outcome in advance, you may begin thinking it's a mountain landscape after the first hundred pieces or so, only to discover as you go along that it's a microscoptic photograph of a grain of sand, and then the face of Jesus (or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). And so on and on. So your idea of the lost picture on the cover changes as you fit new pieces together.

In real life, I think, the puzzle is never revealed completely (except for before the Fall, during the Incarnation, and until the Last Day) but is being continuously revealed (or, at times -- perhaps in these times -- having previous revelations dismantled). When it is finally and completely revealed, then I suppose you quit (or do you stand around admiring it? or start a new one??)

One difference I have with the convenatinal jigsaw analogy: Even as more and more pieces are fit together, the boundaries of Reality (God's Will) around the outside are seldom clear-cut right angles, and are infinately expandable outward. So I think it's generally better to start at the center rather than the edges, though in Real Life you just have to start wherever you can.

[I was about to say that the center becomes clearer and the Point of it All more certain as you go along, but if I'm right that with soft, uncertain boundaries at the edge, what was once at the center of the puzzle(Lincoln's nose) may become part of a larger landscape (Mt. Rushmore) and pushed to the side. Nevertheless, it's never advisable to ignore the obvious.]

It may be that, as you suggest, "that some of us have the gift of being able to see the Divine Boxtop earlier than others [or] of being able to extrapolate what the Boxtop might be from even a single piece of the puzzle." I wouldn't dey the possibility, but I've seen many more wrong guesses than right ones and have a natural skepticism of those who claim to have such gifts. But the proof of the prophet is in the future, and if there are such gifted solvers, they will be revealed.

I'm also taken with Robin's comment that it's a lot harder to solve the puzzle if you have two or more boxes thrown together.

I think that's probably right, but wonder when you'll ever know that that's the case? At what point do you begin to sort out and throw away the pieces that are definitely not part of the puzzle? We've seen the foolishness of disposing of pieces of another color or gender or nationality than the background indicates, and while I'd dearly love to throw away the pieces depicting suicide bombers and [your favorite evil here], I think it's wiser to just put them in the I-don't-know pile. (That way you avoid Robin's other problem, that important pieces are missing.)

What a productive analogy!

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for the expansion on the metaphor, Paul. One brief response I want to make addresses this part of your comment, in which you write, "At what point do you begin to sort out and throw away the pieces that are definitely not part of the puzzle?"

This speaks to how I came to understand the importance of testing our leadings. Who am I to decide what is or isn't part of the puzzle? If left on my own, I will likely discard a piece--or several--prematurely.

If tested and discerned further with a group, the likelihood of keeping the pieces that are necessary and removing (laying down) those that are not will be helped, I should think.