Imagine you were asked to complete a 500-piece puzzle. For me, that’s easy enough; as long as I have unlimited time, snacks, and something to binge on Netflix, I can plow through iterations indefinitely. (I was a software tester, after all.) It's soothing to know that each piece, each answer, is within reach. I need only search for it.
Now, imagine that you are only fed seven pieces of the puzzle at a time. The pieces are selected at random. Only rarely do they fit together; more often, your only job is to wait.
That puzzle is sounding a lot less fun, isn’t it?
Of course, if you were feeling really impatient, you could try to force a few pieces to fit together. At least that way you could feel productive, useful, as if you were doing something other than waiting. You might even find two pieces that look like a match, as long as you squint your eyes and blame the manufacturer for a less-than-perfect fit. Very likely, however, you’ll be redoing your hard work once you get more pieces. There’s no “close enough” with puzzles.
Lately, I’ve been arranging and rearranging the same seven pieces of my life ad nauseam. Job, finances, fitness, recovery, writing, family, relationships.
Of course, one possibility is to wait - to acknowledge that I’m not looking at the full picture, to have faith that more will be be revealed. As a human, waiting is not my impulse.
And particularly not as an alcoholic. What do I do in the meantime? The meantime is the twilight zone. The meantime - waiting and wondering and worrying - is often when we took our first drink.
About two weeks ago, I found myself resentfully journaling in bed. I was madly arranging and rearranging my seven pieces, sure that the best fit would yield a plan. In that moment, I was the happy recipient of an 8th puzzle piece in the form of an inspiration: Text Ellen.
Ellen (pseudonym) is something of a mentor in my recovery. I don’t know much about her, other than the fact that once my feet were drawn to her after the meeting. This was novel, because typically my feet are drawn to the door.
At coffee with Ellen the following week, I laid out my story. Here’s how my pieces currently fit together. Here's an arrangement that almost works. Here's what's not working. What do you think?
Ellen is older and wiser than me. Rather than accepting these same seven pieces and willingly launching into alternative arrangements, she said this: “I saw your eyes light up when you talked about that piece. That one was closest to the bone.”
She was right, of course. I had nearly fooled myself by focusing on the other six, but I hadn’t fooled her.
When so little has been revealed - when I’m looking seven pieces in a 500-piece puzzle - there’s no tidy narrative to be made. There’s no assurance that everything can or should fit together.
Of course, we can test iterations - If my job were closer to my house; if my house were closer to my family; if my family were - uh - closer. But this creates a hell of a lot of noise.
Consider the anxious or obsessive-compulsive person who needs to check the locks seven times before leaving the house. We know that something is "wrong" with him. But are our solutions any less arbitrary? We’ve been looking at 1% of a 500 piece puzzle and are damn sure we’ve got it.
Will my husband be upset? Will be kids behave? Is my boss mad at me? Are my friends bored with me? Does he like my body? It’s all just noise.
By “noise,” I don’t mean irrelevant. After all: noise is the sound of other people living their lives. And each piece of a 500-piece puzzle is equally important, if you're looking for wholeness. But to think that each of these pieces demands immediate action, immediately needs to find its place in the whole, is ludicrous. The answer is often Not right now. Just wait. More will be revealed.
Rather than telling me how my pieces fit together, Ellen simply stepped back and admired them. My job is straightforward, and I never work past 5pm. My relationships are dynamic, interesting, in flux. My place is comfortable. My writing makes me feel alive, vulnerable, curious, simultaneously satisfied and wanting.
No, it doesn’t fit together neatly - nor should it. I'm looking at only a small fraction of a puzzle I've never seen. I’m not responsible for making the current pieces fit, nor am I responsible for anticipating the new pieces coming down the pike. I am simply responsible for catching them - for treating them like the miraculous and necessary minutiae they are.