Thinking Without the Box

Recently Lucas and I were playing trains. Our 3-year-old grandson is a Thomas-the-Train mega-superfan. The fictional British railroad fills his room, his consciousness, even his wardrobe.  During a rare break in the action, Lucas picked up a blue bag full of large puzzle pieces. “Let’s do this puzzle,” he said. Why not? It wasn’t too early, I thought, to teach him the divinely ordained rules of puzzle assembly. (I’m sure they’re in the Bible somewhere, I just haven’t found them yet.) Rule 1—Look at the box lid for a picture of the completed puzzle. When I asked for the box, the answer was, “What box?” It’s more challenging without the box, I thought to myself, but still doable.

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I assumed that Rule 2 had been followed– Be sure you have all the pieces before you start.  So we moved on to Rule 3—a) First find all the border pieces; b) then fill in the rest. Everybody knows that jigsaw puzzles, especially for young children (and older grandparents), have a rectangular border with uniform straight edges and four easily identifiable corners. That’s the way we’ve always done it. But the creators of this puzzle clearly didn’t get the memo. And “without the box”, who knew they’d gotten so wild and crazy? We found sections of color (red, yellow, blue, green) like a border should, but we (I) couldn’t see how the sections fit together.

Since we couldn’t complete Rule 3a, we worked on Rule 3b—“then fill in the rest”. We started finding  pieces of the picture that the puzzle would become—Thomas the Train (surprise!), the village square, other trains, etc. Grandparents’ Exception No. 1 came into play a few times—“Expect the young children working on the puzzle to dismantle sections you’ve painstakingly assembled.” But so did Exception No. 2—“Expect surprising  breakthroughs from your helpers/ dismantlers just when you’re most stymied.”  The same hands that threatened to undo progress also put the missing piece into place more than once.

But assembly ground to a halt when Rule 2 (Be sure you have all the pieces…) reared its ugly head. Nothing new was happening. Lucas was losing interest. I was increasingly suspicious that we weren’t playing with a full deck. (Some folks have thought that about me for years.) Then my daughter, Lucas’s mother, cruised by. “I know where some more pieces of that puzzle are,” she said. She quickly produced them (from a place I never would have looked) and we had everything we needed. The interior part of the puzzle fit together into a pleasant Thomas-the-Train English village scene. When we saw the completed outer edge of that picture, we saw how the different colored sections of the rounded, cloud-like, non-traditional border fit together around it. We were no longer “puzzled”.                                                                                                                       IMG_00000151

“Thinking outside the box” is a buzzword that’s become a cliche. The real challenge is thinking without the box. So many situations offer no template that says, “This is how your finished product should look.” Don’t underestimate the value of experience and accumulated knowledge. But expect to use that experience in new ways as the accelerating change and expanding knowledge draw us into uncharted territory. How can we cope with global climate change? Can we cooperate sufficiently in our global village to achieve meaningful change? How do we adapt to changing global social, economic, and political realities? How can the church adapt to its new position at the margins of society instead of in the center of the village square? How do we help children grow up strong and healthy in this society of changing family structures and values? How do we learn to live our whole lives well when they’re liable to be so much longer than our parents or grandparents’ lives? How can centuries-old systems and structures (like the Roman Catholic Church, the US Constitution, and the traditions and governance of mainline churches) adapt to 21st-century realities? You get the idea.

Rule 1 (Look at the box lid…) needs some work. The picture on the box lid is our shared vision for the future. What do we want our planet, our country, our church, our family, the rest of our life, to look like? Rule 1 might become something like, “Let’s figure out where we want to go together that will be good for everyone before we get too far down another road.”

 Rule 2 (Be sure you have all the pieces…) will permeate our planning, visioning, and living into the future. Breakthrough pieces may come from anyone, anywhere, any time. Let us be far more open and far more humble in order to receive those solutions from the most unlikely sources. Let us not allow pride, prejudice, self-interest, or political/academic/churchly correctness to exclude a “breakthrough” piece that could bring wholeness to a a collection of scattered broken pieces.

We’ll want to modify Rule 3 (First the border, then fill in the rest). Lucas and I applied it backwards to put that puzzle together. We had to complete the inner section of the puzzle in order to see how the border fit around it. The new version of this rule won’t be linear—“First do this, then do this…” It will be more like, “Start wherever you see connections. Let your understanding of  the puzzle develop as you live with it. Stay open to surprising new connections and the discovery of new pieces from unlikely sources.”  

“The Grandparents’ Exceptions” might become the Elders’ Exceptions in this broader application: 1) “Expect the youngsters to dismantle some of the things you’ve worked hard to build—for better and for worse.” 2) “Expect from those same young dismantlers the most amazing breakthroughs  when you least expect it.”  

I’m still going to look for the box lid whenever I start a puzzle with Lucas and his sister Amelia. But if it’s missing in action, we’ll think without the box. That’s more and more the nature of life in our world. It’s the world where they’ll grow up, raise their families, dismantle some stuff we wish they’d left alone, and bring astounding, unexpected , transforming breakthroughs.

5 Responses to “Thinking Without the Box”


  1. 3 Toni Jackson January 12, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    Just the bit of common sense optimisim and wisdom I needed for a tough day. Good rules for not getting overwhelmed with events that don’t seem to make sense at first, and a few good Michaelisms to add to my already long list. Thank you!

  2. 5 Lois Hedden July 29, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Mike — I just re-read this blog piece, still am amazed at how wonderful it is… Just wanted you to know that and to let you know you are in my prayers… Lois


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