Puzzling Pieces

Puzzling Pieces

There has been more than the usual number of jigsaw puzzles among our stay-at-home entertainment in recent months. (Perhaps for you, too?) And as with any other activity, our individual engagement varies—among the four people in our household, we represent a broad spectrum of interest level and patience and skill and capacity for enduring frustration.

One of us has some sort of super-sense that helps to locate a piece that none of the rest of us can find.

Another has the patience to concentrate for extended periods of time, completing whole sections in one sitting.

Another loves the sorting of pieces out of the box, separating edges from everything else and then building the puzzle’s frame.

And another enjoys engaging with the puzzles only occasionally—5 minutes at a time, maybe once a week. (Not really their thing, you know?)

Recently one of the kids walked in just as the puzzle outline had been completed, and she said, “Great. Now the part I hate … filling in the center.”

“Huh?” I said. “Didn’t you just tell me you hate sorting the pieces and putting together the outline, too? What part do you like?”

“Putting in the last piece and finishing it.”

I laughed.

But then, wow, that comment definitely provoked some reflection. How often do we join a project or a movement and take credit for its success, without having invested any real effort in its creation? How often do we look for the quick and easy win? How often do we superficially evaluate a final product with no appreciation or understanding of the intricate connections among its individual parts? Of course, sometimes it’s unimportant to understand those intricacies. But how often do we truly consider the nuances of these relationships among the parts and production of a thing and its final form?

I have long valued the jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor. When I was in my early 20s and wrestling with a crisis of faith and identity—one that would eventually lead me to Unitarian Universalism and to ministry—I had the great fortune to get connected with a psychotherapist who was just right for me. After a couple months, she shared the impression I had made on her in our first session: “You were trying so hard to make everything fit. It was like you had this picture of the world as you saw it, and you had all these puzzle pieces that you were trying to put together to make that picture. But those pieces went to a different puzzle.”

You had the pieces to a different puzzle.

That was more than half a lifetime ago, and her words have been a touchstone for me all these years. I have tried to remain mindful about when I might be trying to force something that just isn’t meant to be—when I have a thing that has value in and of itself, but which isn’t part of the larger vision that is guiding me.

This learning is relevant in our congregational ministries, in parenting decisions, in choosing elected officials, in deciding where and how to invest time and money and activist energy.

What pieces are available? What does the completed puzzle look like? Do I have the pieces that will form that picture? And who gets to say when the puzzle is complete?

It’s good to be back with you, UUCC. Thank you for allowing time and space for me to replenish my stores. I look forward to another year of solving puzzles and fulfilling visions with you.

With wonder and love,

P.S. That puzzle that the kid didn’t want to work on? Turns out that none of us loved it, and we grew bored and frustrated. But we left it out for our friend who stayed with the dog when we went away for a few days, and we encouraged her to enjoy it. She knew nothing of what I’ve described above. And yet, we came home to a completed—almost—puzzle, with a note, “I leave you the honor of placing the last piece.” What a precious gift—she did all the work and then lovingly offered us the satisfaction of seeing it truly complete.


  1. Lowell Sunderland

    Multiple puzzles, missing or misplaced pieces, frustration, inattention. Precisely where this nation and where we, the people, are right now. Yelling past one another. Refusing to see. Not hearing … no, not listening. Leadership that doesn’t want us to think … and, one cannot help but conclude, doesn’t want us to think, or hear, or see , or listen, either.

  2. Jill Christianson

    It will be great to have you back with us soon. I appreciate the ‘wrong puzzle’ concept – valuable when pieces just don’t seem to fit.

  3. Liz Barrett

    Paige, we are so glad you are back. What a terrific column — love the puzzle metaphor. I just beamed when you wrote ” ..pieces to a different puzzle.” Thank you for your wisdom and wit. Welcome back.

  4. Pam Guzzone

    Not more than 30 minutes before I read this I was talking with my oldest and used a puzzle metaphor — he has lots of pieces but isn’t clear how those pieces may come together or what it may (exactly) look like when they do…I told him it was like he was missing the box with the picture of the finished puzzle, and that as he continues to collect pieces and figure out how they (and he) fit together the picture will become clearer.
    And you are right, the parenting gig is one huge, on-going puzzle!! 🙂

  5. Stuart TenHoor

    Loved Kevin Mercer’s (perhaps) unintentional pun.

    We’re all now “back” as you are often the key piece that makes our puzzle work!

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