Pieces of the Picture

As I studied the dumpster’s dimensions, for a moment I felt like Dad.

No, Dad isn’t in sanitation. But whenever me or my sisters moved, we always wanted Dad as crew chief. To him, moving trucks were three-dimensional puzzles, where everything could fit just right if you only found its place in the picture – and he ALWAYS found its place in the picture. It might have been because of his time aboard a submarine, where space is limited and precious. It might have just been a natural talent for order. Either way, it was awe-inspiring.

It’s also a talent that I’ve usually lacked. My awareness of spatial relationships has been approximate, to say the least. As for order … well, Heather and I used to joke that I was a “walking vortex of chaos,” and my notebook-filled newsroom desks usually told the tale well.

But this time, as we prepared for the Great Home and Yard Purge of 2021, everything seemed to click. Branches … go here. That worn-out armchair … goes there. Like Sherlock Holmes assembling a case, every piece had its perfect fit, which then created the space for the next one. It was a living game of Tetris.

And at the end of it all, with everything squared off and filled up, it felt enormously satisfying.

No surprise. Most of us like neatly fitting pictures.  We like symmetry and order and consistency. There’s an appeal to the movie plot that ties everything neatly together, or the room whose layout says “comfort” without a word, or the ideals of justice (so hard to achieve) that say we all have a place and a part to play.

Most of all, we like explanations. And that’s where things get tricky.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The quest for explanations and answers is what drives philosophy, science, even newspaper editorials. We ask questions, we examine the world and ourselves, and we try to put together an answer that fits what we see.

But the world is messy and our senses are limited. That means there are going to be ragged edges to all of this. If we’re honest and careful, we acknowledge that, letting an old answer die or evolve as our understanding gets better.

Or, as Yoda put it, we take the quicker, easier, more seductive path to the Dark Side. We make the answer fit, no matter what we have to do to get it there.

Forcing a fit is one thing when you’re breaking down dead branches to stack them neatly with your yard waste. But as an approach to understanding the world or other people, it’s outright harmful. It means ignoring what you don’t like, while inflating coincidence into significance. The story becomes more important than the reality, and challenging it becomes a personal offense.

It means never allowing yourself to be wrong. Which in turn means never allowing yourself to learn.

I mentioned Holmes earlier. The Great Detective once warned against twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. Things can fit – but if you start with the answer you want and cling to it no matter what, you won’t actually discover anything. Paradoxically, you have to be willing to back up to move forward.

Easy to say. Hard to do. Essential to learn.

If we keep testing, keep examining, keep questioning , we can get to the answers that satisfy instead of just the ones that feel good. We can share thoughts instead of butting heads.

And those other answers that we discarded along the way?

Well. there’s always a little more room in the dumpster.