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How do we best play with the puzzle of life...?


Searching through a long-neglected dresser drawer yesterday, I stumbled across an old, plastic, nearly prehistoric and definitely pre-Rubik’s Cube, number-slide puzzle. It had come as a childhood birthday party favor from a close friend, and like all brain-teasers at that time, I adored it. The game consisted of a four-by-four grid wherein fifteen fitted, numbered, jumbled squares took turns sliding vertically or horizontally into the one open space allotted. Sixteen spaces for fifteen numbered tiles. The goal of the game was to use that single open space to systematically slide the numbers back into sequential order...without losing complete patience and chucking it across the room.  

As I fiddled with my flimsy find, I realized just what valuable, timeless treasure this cheaply made toy had been. The goal of the game was simple, clear. The rules of the game were implicit, well-defined. The instruments of pursuit were easily available, enforced by the mold and fit of the plastic. The premise was obvious, uncomplicated, yet, the challenge was indubitable.

I remembered how both parents and peers, alike, had played with this puzzle after the party had dispersed. And how now, looking back, it had intermittently—yet, unmistakably—mirrored most of our primordial approaches to the very game of life.

There were those that remained unbeckoned by the open equation waiting to be solved, who simply shook the toy for its clickity sound, or made rudimentary murals out of the mosaic tiles. I watched them move on to other objects quickly, as if they had exhausted both their own patience and the toy’s plastic purpose.

There were those who abandoned strategy in favor of endlessly shuffling random tiles with the blurry hope that chance would drop them into numbered place—they disengaged, as if their indecision had diffused their desire for both entertainment and distraction.

There were those that hyper-focused exclusively on the hole in their board, constantly, futilely, trying to just fill it with another tile for the inverted purpose of ‘not having a hole,’ instead of appreciating the hole as the only way to put the pieces in sequence. They would repeatedly relinquish it to someone else, as if they had felt set up by a forgone premise, beaten already.

Then, there were those, like myself at the time, who instantly noted the macro-goal; ravenously found, implemented, and perfected the micro-tools necessary to achieve said goal; conquered the game, only to, then, chuck the one-time ‘win’ into a dark drawer for the next decade upon decade, as if I had narrowly translated the entire purpose of the game into only one that should be perfectly solved. Period.

We have all been each one of those parents and peers at one point or another in our lives. We have all had moments of wanting to disengage from a challenge. We have all had moments of feverish frustration, or futile floundering. We have all had moments of chasing that singular pursuit of achievement—of wanting to win a trophy to the absolute exclusion of everything or everyone else. We have all played with the puzzle of our lives in a myriad of ways—none of which have been wrong—and all of which have created the stimulating, informative, and emotional experiences that have served to bring us to this present moment.

Our approaches to the puzzle of life will continue to change, morph, evolve; so, too, will the rules that we accept, define, implement; as well as the measure of our goal, win, success. The only real, and everlasting party favor is our willingness to jump in and PLAY—wholeheartedly—with the puzzle, itself.

I invite you to shuffle your tiles. Be undaunted by the jumbled numbers, and instead, FIND THE FUN IN THE CHALLENGE.

All that matters is that you JUST PLAY.