The role of a parent seems full of contradictions. For example: we often chastise our children for “behaving childishly” when actually … sometimes we’d give anything to throw ourselves into the ball-pool, have a tantrum because we can’t have what we want (I usually want to do this when looking at laptops) or eat so much cake that we throw up.
We want to protect our children from harm and the woes of the world, but we must also prepare them for it – that means exposing them to it. We teach them what we think they should believe, but also that they must think for themselves. We teach tolerance and acceptance of others, but also that there’s a notion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We teach them that they must eat their vegetables … but let’s be honest: Broccoli is disgusting.
Deep philosophical discussions about mortality and the fleeting nature of our existence are not ones we would normally have with our kids. The evening-routine in our house certainly doesn’t go “bathtime, pyjamas, teeth brushed, read selected passages from Nietzsche, bed”. It’s not typical subject material for a happy children’s book.
It’s difficult enough to get them up for school every morning without them asking questions like “Why should I go? What’s the point?“. Even the time-honoured parental retort of “Because I said so!” (which, if you think about it, is a statement loaded with philosophical implication) only works for so long.
We do demonstrate such philosophy, though … albeit in a roundabout manner.
For example: tidying their bedroom. They begrudge doing it, they don’t appreciate the result, and two hours later there is no evidence of any of that effort at all. But we still tell them to do it. That’s futility and pointlessness, right there.
Hoovering? Possibly a worthwhile exercise if you live on your own, but not if you have children and pets. Given the short duration that our floors are clean after hoovering, I’m convinced the hoover just blows everything into the air rather than sucking it up. We might as well use a leaf-blower.
There is another tool available to illustrate the musings of Kierkegaard and Sartre in a family-friendly manner. We need to be aware of it for the powerful philosophical teaching aid it is … but be warned that it can just as easily pull the unwary into a pit of despair and existential angst.
It’s been hiding in granny’s cupboard for years, and I’m not talking about granddad’s ashes. I’m talking – of course – about the jigsaw puzzle.
I hit on this astounding revelation on a recent holiday to the in-laws’. My son discovered a 1,000-piece jigsaw in a cupboard. He dragged it out, emptied the box on the table, saw what 1,000 pieces looks like when piled up … and abandoned it.
Rather than just telling him to put it all away, my wife and I had a go.
As adults we consider ourselves experts at jigsaws. We know all about the strategy of looking for edge pieces and the immense value of corners. We’re not too proud to keep the lid out of view, either. And we can always brush-aside any occasional feeling that perhaps we’re wasting valuable oxygen in a completely pointless activity. Even though my son hit on that particular Enlightened Truth in less than five minutes.
Jigsaws are futile and pointless and mundane. At their very best they’re stress-free; at their very worst they induce fits of anger and Tourette’s. Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, I’m looking at you.
But they seem so tranquil! Observe how well they conceal their lurking evil! Heed this well, dear reader: any jigsaw – often depicting a colourful and idyllic country-village scene, complete with a sky that demands 300 near-identical blue pieces – is tantamount to inflicting a Philosophy degree on your children.
Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. As children, were they forced to do jigsaws whilst on a camping holiday in Bridlington? If you were to peel-back the layers of their neuroses, what would you find under all that depression, horror-fiction and soul-crushing despair? I strongly suspect you’d find an image of a Cornish harbour; complete with buoy, old fishing boat, fisherman with pipe, and quaint pub with a complex and uneven roofing structure that’s fucking impossible to recreate from the pieces left.
If not handled properly, jigsaws lead to Ennui, Absurdism and Nihilism. But when handled by philoso-jigsaw professionals, they can teach us many things.
What can we learn from jigsaws?
The jigsaw puzzle mirrors our existence, in a highly condensed form. Like a deity over us, we can observe the entirety of it laid out on the kitchen table. As we assemble a jigsaw and carefully reflect, what do we learn about our own existence?
These are the teachings of Guru Ravensburger.
- The jigsaw begins in pieces. It may have great potential to be something beautiful – or it may be just a picture of a plate of baked-beans. We cannot truly know until it is finished.
- To try to make sense of the disparate pieces is a daunting and impossible task.
- There are tricks you can learn (such as the importance of edges and corners) to give you an advantage.
- Pieces that look like they should go together just will not, even though you expend a disproportionate amount of time trying to force them. Sometimes that can be fixed with violence.
- Partway through you will swear blind that there must be some pieces missing, because you’ve looked all through the remaining bits and there isn’t one that looks even a remotely like a bit of letterbox.
- You will blame others for missing pieces: family, friends, the dog. You learn to leave that area of the picture for now, and concentrate on something else. Your growing wisdom teaches you that it will be resolved eventually.
- Sometimes, there are pieces missing, but you won’t know for sure until you’ve completed the rest of the picture.
- When the jigsaw is finished … just for a moment, it looks beautiful. You stand and savour it for a while. You leave it on display for others to do the same. They remark upon the effort it must have been, like they’re delivering a eulogy at your funeral.
- Finally, you break it up and put it in the box, and then bury the box under the stairs.
Ultimately, jigsaws teach us this: life is meaningless and everything dies. No matter how great our lives, we all finish up in a box at the end. The point of the jigsaw was not the finished picture. It was the effort you made to put it together.
Blessings to you all, my brothers and sisters. May you always find your corner pieces, and your table never wobble.