The Stone Mason and the Boulder

It’s April 10th and it’s snowing this morning. This winter is like a barnacle on the side of a jetty rock, latching on with such relentless determination that even the strong waves cannot dissociate the bond. The good news is that the forecast for Friday and Saturday finally shows warm spring temperatures. That will be a wonderfully thawing feeling.

Over the weekend, we finally made some progress on our 2000-piece Wildlife Map of the United States jigsaw puzzle. I haven’t had any time during the weekdays in the past month or so to work on it, and we were away the previous weekend. Before that, we would spend an hour or so on each of the two weekend days, but usually that time was spent multitasking and talking, and because the puzzle is so difficult, we’d actually only correctly lay down ten pieces or so during that time. With a 2000-piece image, 10 pieces is a nearly imperceptible dent. Thankfully, we don’t just derive pleasure from accomplishing a significant chunk at a time; the joy is mainly in spending time together talking and laughing over the canvas of a puzzle to fiddle with.

On Saturday, I doubt we even managed our ten-piece average. With so much time off from using our brains in the jigsaw-solving way, we were like out-of-shape athletes who couldn’t match their previous levels. Likely the primary benefit of that time, the connecting and sharing, was especially prominent as a focus of our attention given that we saw so little of one another during the week, which felt particularly difficult on the heels of the togetherness on vacation. Again, there was no real disappointment in the lack of progress; it was just the objective outcome of the time.

Sunday was quite the opposite. We pieced together most of the eastern seaboard. Pieces started fitting together and making sense. It was like all of the backlog of work we had done sorting or separating pieces finally started paying off. As we talked and played with the puzzle, discernible progress was won. I can’t estimate the number of pieces we tapped into place, but that data point is unnecessary in conveying the crux of the idea: sometimes it takes a long time to notice progress or change even when you’re working hard on something for quite some time. However, at some point, some imaginary threshold is crossed and the planning, practicing, and effort you’ve been putting in jumps you forward in a leap that finally seems appropriate to what you were hoping for in terms of the improvement over time.

It reminds me of the parable of the stone mason who swings his sledgehammer at a boulder 100 times without even a detectable crack appearing. He wants to give up because his efforts seem fruitless, but it is suddenly after the 101st blow to the boulder that it decisively splits in two. It’s not the last swing, in isolation, that was any more powerful or potent than the 100 before; rather, the cumulative effects of the work invested into breaking the boulder were finally realized into a successful break by the 101st hit. Had he stopped after 100 when he wanted to give up, nothing visible would have been afforded by his work though under the surface, each one of those blows had caused microscopic progress toward the goal.

Much in the same way, though we aren’t competitive or needing to derive a sense of accomplishment or being “good” at jigsaw puzzling, the symbolism can be seen to parallel this parable. We’ve been slowly working on the puzzle for weeks now with little to show for it, then Sunday, things started coming together. It was sort of like the 101st blow. (Of course, we still probably have 1000 pieces or so remaining, so it wasn’t exactly as final as the 101st masonry hit, but close enough!) We aren’t in any rush to finish it thankfully, or else we’d be feeling some pressure at this point. I do wish I had more time to dedicate toward working on it during the week for the sole reason that I absolutely love doing it and it makes me happy. Responsibilities get in the way. At least it gives me something special to look forward to every weekend. I start dreaming of it (literally) as the weekend approaches; I see myself filling in gaps and sorting pieces. What a funny brain I have…

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