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Life is a puzzle

Last week I met a man in my local library who was struggling to complete a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle contained more individual pieces than I was initially able to count, I could see that the box had been through the mill as it was worn around the edges and the image on the front (the instructions if you like) had become distorted and difficult to see clearly.

The man sat alone with the open box in front of him, all the pieces jumbled up inside and he looked confused, to be honest I thought he was going to throw in the towel. I watched for a while as he swirled the pieces around inside the box, clearly trying to find a good place to start building the picture, but the confines of the box, and his inability to see clearly the many components of his puzzle, were frustrating him beyond his emotional capacity.

I approached the man, introduced myself and asked if I could help. He said it was nice to meet me, but he thought that at his age, he could manage a simple puzzle on his own. I told him that I understood, and that I would be reading at the next table if he changed his mind.

A little while later I looked over and saw he was no further forwards; he was becoming agitated as he swirled the pieces around in the box.

He looked at me, clearly trying to mask his growing frustration, I could see that the puzzle was possibly going to win this round. I asked if he fancied a break and a coffee, and to my surprise he accepted.

He insisted on making the brews, then we sat and chatted about the weather, the football and how my son is a Lego fanatic for a little while, before he sighed deeply, and said that he better get back to the puzzle.

I told him that I had once struggled with my own puzzle, and I knew a way of levelling the playing field between puzzle and puzzler.

We sat together and I told him that if he emptied the box on to the table, I would show him the trick. After he had spread out all the pieces, I said that I would need a frame in which to demonstrate. With the components now released from the confines of the box, he quickly identified the 4 corner pieces of the puzzle and set them out. I told him that the trick to understanding a puzzle isn’t that difficult once we understand its boundaries, he quickly sought out all the straight edges and placed them in order forming the outline of his puzzle.

I said that I didn’t know what the picture in his puzzle would turn out like, but that I knew from my own puzzle that it may be complicated and not what he initially imagined.

I sat patiently as he began to identify, prioritise and then position the many pieces that made up his puzzle. Occasionally he would slow down and seem hesitant in his next move, I used short words of encouragement to show him that I was interested in his progress and that I cared about the outcome of this challenge. When he found himself at what seemed like a dead end, I asked him to describe what he was trying to see, and I reflected on selections that he had already made. We stopped for coffee twice, and we sat in comfortable silence at times.

In his own time, he placed the final piece into the puzzle, he leaned back in his chair and smiled.

Now I hasten to point out that the picture before him was not perfect, nor was it necessarily exactly what he had wanted to see, but with patience, understanding, acceptance and support he could see the picture clearly, enabling him to make informed decisions about his puzzle.

Externalising is tipping your puzzle onto the table in order to better see its individual component parts. It is a fantastic way of making sense of the challenges that we face in life.

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