Piecing Together Self-Care and Tikkun Olam Through Puzzles

There is no doubt that tikkun olam, the act of repairing the world, is an important and widely valued idea in modern American Judaism. The facet of this value that lacks a Hebrew term is the crucial but oft-forgotten aspect of “self-care.”

Ask anyone who works in education, social work, or anywhere in the nonprofit world: When it comes to helping our communities grow, we are nonstop and full-force, but when the focus shifts to taking care of ourselves, many in these professions falter and ultimately burn out. As an ISJL Community Engagement Fellow who hopes to do this sort of work for years to come, I am determined to avoid this fate for as long as I possibly can.

20161125_194356In an effort to take care of myself,  I decided to emulate my great-grandmother, Fannie, who, according to my mother, kept a little card table in the corner of her living room where she would gradually build intricate jigsaw puzzles. Once completed, she would glue the backs and frame her cardboard masterpieces.In connecting with this piece of my family’s history, I have found a much-needed hobby for reflection and recharging, one which has surprisingly provided tools I can use for tikkun olam.

Here are a few lessons I learned from assembling a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on my coffee table:

  • Starting is the hardest part: If I’d waited until I felt completely ready or capable, I’d never finish anything.
  • Framing is important: I began with the edges. I needed to know the parameters I was working within so that I could build from the outside in.
  • Shine some light on the shadows: It’s remarkable how a good lamp can throw hidden details into relief.
  • Blue is never just blue: Fifty percent of my puzzle was basically blue sky or water. As I sorted through the pieces, a variety of subtle but important details emerged– a rock breaking through the water’s surface, the wisp of a cloud, or the edge of a leafless branch. Taking the time to notice and make sense of the details was key to solving many of the more frustrating sections.
  • Just when I got to really know a piece, it found its place: There are many pieces I stared at for hours, it seems. And then, like magic, they blended right into their proper surroundings.
  • Create space: There’s only so long that working on the puzzle is either relaxing or productive. If I put it aside for a day and then return to it the next, suddenly an elusive solution was staring me in the face!
  • Turn it upside-down: Rather than looking at the whole picture, I removed myself from the literal image and observed the colors, shapes, and textures independently. Looking at it from a fresh angle made all the difference.
  • Buying a puzzle second-hand is risky business: I was aware of the possibility of putting hours of work into this thrift store-bought puzzle, only to find one piece–or more–missing! However, I know that my efforts are just as meaningful as they would have been with a complete picture because I did the best I could with the materials available to me. (Spoiler: There were two pieces missing. I still think it was well-worth the time.) 20161127_105145-01
  • Beauty is fleeting: I dumped the finished puzzle back into the box. The picture remains the same, just in a very different order than the artist originally intended. I enjoyed my time with it, and now someone else can, too.
  • There might be a piece under the couch: Maybe I’ll find it two years from now when I decide to rearrange the living room, and maybe I will long since have given the puzzle away or sold it at a yard sale. We don’t always get all the answers we want at the same time, and that’s okay. It’s one less mystery for me, and one more challenge for someone else.

Building a puzzle takes focus and patience. There are neither shortcuts nor reasons to rush. In doing this small, meditative act for myself, I am restoring my mind to its full capacity so that I can continue to serve others to the best of my ability. And who knows, maybe along the way, I’ll help someone build their own puzzle so that they can, in turn, repair the world.

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