The Jigsaw Puzzle of Life

building jigsaw

Photo puzzle showing Patrauti church, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suceava, Bucovina, Romania


I remember my (Great-) Aunty Rita from my young childhood days. She loved gargantuan jigsaw puzzles. Aunty Rita taught my Cousin Mike and I how to start by sifting out and connecting together all the pieces that had straight edges, to establish the boundary of some 1000+ piece puzzle. It would typically be a huge landscape with many decorative features and often a lot of blue sky.

Having completed the edge, we knew that every remaining piece fitted inside its boundary. We weren’t allowed to step outside. With the rules established, we’d next tackle any large feature, say a building, which stood out from the background. If it was a grey building, for example, we’d hunt for pieces that had what looked like the outline of the building running through them – a straight edge with grey one side and background the other. We’d piece them together and then search for and insert further grey pieces, some with bits of a door or window in them. Eventually, when the building was complete, we’d feel proud that we had a discernible part of the jigsaw to show for our work.

Slowly, we’d work through all the features of the jigsaw; piecing togther their outlines first and then filling them in. This strategy, by and large, seemed to work fine until…Jigsaw puzzle

Picture courtesy of Roberson, Small Business Consulting.

Blue Sky, Nothing but Blue Sky (extract from my 3rd book, Defrag your Soul)

When faced with blue sky, our ‘fill-in-the-outline-first’ strategy, to complete the picture, no longer worked. We had to revert to visual trial and error. We didn’t have the nous to get a ‘feel’ for where each piece slotted correctly, the first time around. We’d pick up a piece that looked the right shape and test it one way then the other. Sometimes we’d see if the piece in our hand fitted in a number of vacant slots.

On occasion, we’d try and force a piece, which looked very nearly right, into place. When we realised the error of our ways we’d extract it. We needed to be careful because if we removed the offending piece quickly, out of frustration, we would drag up some neighbouring jigsaw pieces with it. We would then have to reconnect the pieces we’d torn from their sockets. We learned to stay cool when things didn’t fit into place the way we wanted them to.

Fitting ‘blue sky’ jigsaw pieces together, proved a good analogy for my trial and error approach to getting my own way as a child. If I gave out a howl when I didn’t get my own way, I soon got to know about it. (I immediately felt the discomfort of trying to insert an ill-fitting jigsaw piece to my ‘blue sky’.) If I tried to force the issue (i.e. the wrong piece in the wrong place), I’d ‘rip out’ any ‘credits for good behaviour’ that I carried at the time.

Hissy fits were not tolerated. I found out at a very young age how to discern between acceptable, polite behaviour and the opposite. I found out what being a ‘good boy’ meant partly through the responses I got when I was ‘naughty’ – and how being a ‘very naughty boy’ could result in a very unpleasant reprimand.

Like many kids I tested the boundaries. How far could I go with ‘naughtiness’? What could I get away with? Where would I find the line not to cross? Where and when did I need to temper my behaviour to get what I want and avoid punishment?

Howling and carping on about things I wanted to happen didn’t work but neither did keeping quiet. How could I let people know what I wanted if I didn’t speak out? So I instinctively learned how to temper my approach to influence others. I learned about temperance.

What about other ‘blue sky’ feelings such as love and security (never mind the shame, anger, sadness and fear that can ensue when we don’t get love and security)?

We hopefully provide our children with love and security. I can think of no happier sight than seeing an innocent child, smiling and living life to the full, knowing that they themself feel completely safe and secure.

This begs questions, When do we set them free to stand on their own feet? How will the child learn about insecurity (not security) and not-love? When do (or could) they start to learn about shame, anger, sadness, fear? How will they cope with trauma?

The answer is, “Do what feels right. They will call these experiences for themselves when the time is right regardless”.

It’s only recently that I’ve realised the dualistic metaphorical jigsaw nature of how you learn about life. For example, to appreciate love, you need to learn what not-love is. Otherwise how could you discern when you love (or are loved by) someone? And to fully understand the term ‘unconditional love’ you need to learn what ‘conditional love’ is.

Furthermore, the picture in the metaphorical jigsaw is not static. It’s a movie that changes with life’s ebb and flow of breath, days, years, relationships and so on. What creates success one day can create a setback another and vice versa.

Times change. People change. Contexts change. Nature demands change. You evolve, if nothing else, to survive. You learn from successes and setbacks. For example, if you consistently show the same anger to different people, you probably won’t get the same response or outcome. You can also find yourself continually fitting a piece of anger to a situation where only patience will fit. There’s ‘a  right fitting piece’ to every situation you attract in life but it might require great subtlety, instinct or sensitivity to find it – for there are many pieces to choose from.

Life’s Jigsaw has an infinite number of pieces. It evolves into a lifelong movie that you get to act in and direct (sometimes partly and sometimes wholly) for yourself. And the most challenging parts to act and direct tend to be the ‘blue sky’ pieces.

So the art or perhaps science of life is how to reduce the trials and errors that can cause upset and piece together its ‘blue sky’ pieces more efficiently. How do you respond to those situations that happen to us all and only a few know how to handle effectively – the ‘blue sky’ pieces – the known unknowns?

Knowing you don’t know is learning in itself. It is the first step up from not knowing what you don’t know or unconscious incompetence, life’s starting place. Training professionals call this first step, conscious (of) incompetence. Through practice, experience and ideally having a role model to copy, you can become consciously competent, i.e. you know what to do but you have to think about it. For example, when I was learning to drive I was told to change gear every 10mph. So I used to know which gear I should be in by reading the speed gauge consciously.

Eventually, you get a feel for what needs to be done. You attend to what’s needed intuitively. This state is called unconscious competence. You do what’s needed without thinking about it.

Through experience and maturity you hopefully learn how to piece together ‘blue sky’ pieces to Life’s Jigsaw – such as love, decision making, patience or coping with trauma. What about when you attempt to go beyond the puzzle’s edge? Here you find the unknown unknowns – for example, buried emotions or childhood pacts you made with yourself that you didn’t know you carried around with you. Here you find yourself back where you started life, unconscious incompetence.
(To be continued…)

Shine on…!
Paul C Burr
Follow @paulburr


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