I first published this piece in April of 2019, after one episode in a now countless stream of gun violence. I had a puzzle on my table then; I have a puzzle on my table now. Anyone willing to come to the table and sort out the pieces and put an end to this problem? Isn’t it about time we did?
I like working on puzzles — dumping a thousand pieces or so onto a table, finding the border, sorting by color and shape, and beginning to bring order from chaos. I know there’s an image that’s been shattered, and I like the focus and intention it takes to put it back together.
It’s a broken I know how to fix.
Several years ago, I had a puzzle sitting on a small table in our family room. Our teenagers liked to watch television and movies, and, though I didn’t always like what they were watching, I did like being around them, so I would plunk myself down at the puzzle table and listen to the laughter and the commentary. I just liked being where they were.
But even though I was right in the room, bringing insignificant order to meaningless chaos, I was overlooking the broken pieces that had flung themselves on our couches. I was oblivious to the hemorrhaging from a brutal assault; I was ignoring simmering depression; and I was wishing away the striving for perfection. I was not hearing the silent crying and unspoken questions hanging in the room.
I just was just puzzling.
I’ve been sitting at a different puzzle table here in our house by the river — the nest that was emptied, probably too soon, of all the wounded who set off flapping, trying their best to soar.
I’ve been bent over this puzzle since January — sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for five hours — trying to find where each little piece goes.
It’s various shades of gray, black, and white, and the images on each piece are minuscule, so I actually have to examine each one closely, holding it very close to my eyes, so that I can see which way it is oriented and if it has any specific identifying marks. It’s a long process that won’t be rushed.
So I keep on puzzling.
Some might accuse me of trying to escape reality; I prefer to believe that I am embodying metaphor.
What if I approached every problem the way I approach puzzling — what if I dumped the whole mess on the table, examined each piece, and then, without rushing, sorted it all out and found something beautiful.
To be clear, this has not been my traditional approach to problem solving. No, I have often preferred what I call the slam-and-jam method.
Someone presents me with a problem — sick child, malfunctioning computer, or, say, gun violence — and I immediately spout out a list of strategies for solving the problem.
It looks like this:
Adult child: “Mom, I’m sick. My throat hurts, I’m tired, and I have a headache.”
Me: “Zyrtec, Motrin, rest, and fluids.”
Co-worker: “Kristin, I keep losing my internet connection with my student.”
Me: “Refresh. If that doesn’t work, re-start. If that doesn’t work, have the student restart. If that doesn’t work, have the student re-set his wifi.”
Everyday newscast: “One person was killed and three injured in yet another attack on a synagogue. The accused is said to have used an AR-type assault weapon.”
Me: “Get those damn assault weapons off the street, prohibit violent shooter video games, and provide more access to mental health services.”
Now, I’m not gonna lie. My rapid-fire reactions to these types of problems are pretty accurate and effective most of the time (although the gun violence solution has yet to be tested), but they are really just first-level responses. They are quick fixes. I am the master of quick-fixes — patch ’em up, move ’em out. But here’s the thing, most problems need more than quick fixes. They need a slow deep examination of each piece. They need committed folks pouring over the mess for five minutes or five hours every day…sitting, puzzling, searching, seeing.
Actually, many problems need a quick response — immediate attention– and a longer look. Once the initial crisis is somehow averted, we need to look at causes, repercussions, and long-term solutions.
Me: “This is the fourth time you’ve called me not feeling well this month. Are you eating right? getting enough rest? How many days have you had to miss work? Do you think you should see a doctor? attend to more self-care?”
Me: “It seems you always have tech issues with this student. How much instructional time have we lost? Can we have IT evaluate the situation? Do we need a new computer?”
Me: “What causes a 19 year old kid to drive to a synagogue and shoot at people? Why did he have an automatic weapon? Why are there so many attacks on faith communities — Jewish, Muslim, Christian — lately? How many lives have been lost to gun violence since Columbine? What damage are these attacks doing to the fabric of our nation where “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Which right is more important — the right to worship in safety or the right to own an automatic weapon? What would it take for Americans to come together and decide that enough is enough? What will it take?”
Sometimes you have to sit with these pieces, move them around on the table, look at them from different angles, and see them in ways that you never saw them before.
I had been working on my black and white puzzle for several months. Actually, I’d been kind of shuffling by it, nudging two or three pieces, and then walking away. I was getting nowhere. Finding little movement, I was beginning to consider tossing it back in the box unfinished. Was it really worth my time and trouble? Certainly I’d never finish this one.
Enter my brother-in-law, Jerry, who, with my sister-in-law, was staying with us for a few days. I jokingly said, as I say to everyone who comes in our home, “bonus points to guests who sit at the puzzle table and put in a few pieces.” He laughed and shook his head, “oh, man, that looks like a tough one.” Then he, like most people do, turned his back to the puzzle and chatted with me while I prepared dinner. Just as I figured, he wouldn’t bite. I was on my own.
A couple hours later, I was sitting in the other room, and Jerry walked in, “Hey, I got a couple pieces put in.”
“You did?” I said, standing and walking to the kitchen. At that point, it was hard to tell if any progress had been made. Two to three pieces out of 1000 do not a dramatic difference make, but Jerry stayed at our house for three days.
He developed a system and brought me in to collaborate. We spent twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there puzzling together. And guess what happened — we began to see progress.
We sat together, looking at hundreds of black and white pieces, putting them in place, and watching an image slowly appear.
Now, did I craft this metaphor? Did I intentionally select an image of Abraham Lincoln, a great American liberator, to work on during a season of unprecedented gun violence? Did I consider that the black and white pieces might match the attitudes that I and many others have held about race, religion, and guns? Did I imagine the time it would take to sift, and sort, and examine before a coherent image would begin to appear? Did I understand that complicated problems often require collaboration? Did I know in advance that black and white and gray can come together to create something that has complexity and depth?
Sometimes, this stuff is sitting right in front of us, and we don’t recognize it. Sometimes we get so frustrated we want to walk away. Sometimes we need to let others see the mess on our tables (or on our couches) and invite them to help us sort it out, see it in a different way, partner with us in finding solutions.
Are we willing to do that? Are we ready to come together, to work through the complexity, and to find immediate and long-term solutions? Isn’t it about time?
you take brokenness aside and make it beautiful, beautiful.All Sons and Daughters, “Brokenness Aside”