The Simple Joy of a Puzzle

Jigsaw puzzleBy Sara Kropf

It’s July 2020. One day we’ll look back at this time with some perspective. We’ll tally with certainty how many people died from a pandemic that could undoubtedly been stopped sooner. We’ll evaluate whether the Black Lives Matters protests led to meaningful police reform. We’ll know if the voters made big changes in the November elections.

For now, though, we’re in the thick of it. It’s a stressful time for everyone.

I’ve found that for my clients, it’s much worse. Nearly all of my clients are going through the toughest times of their lives. They are under government investigation, have been indicted, or are being sued. No matter their specific situation, though, I’ve found that living through the pandemic along with navigating this existing has them at their breaking points.

Their problems are messy and complicated. They are serious. As a lawyer, I love the challenge of my clients’ cases. I don’t want to spend my career handling run-of-the-mill cases; give me the toughest ones, and I’m happy (mostly).

Even before the pandemic, a chunk of my time is spent not as a lawyer for my clients but as an armchair therapist, listening to them describe the stress of their crises. I don’t mind this part of my practice, and I welcome the fact that my clients understand that I am a sympathetic ear. They trust me.

There’s a practical advantage to these conversations. They help me figure out how to communicate best with them.

I’ve had clients tell me that they dread seeing my email appear in their inbox or my number pop up on their phone. I get it. For those clients, a weekly email check-in about their case is sufficient. Others feel better knowing every development in their case, so waiting too long for an update causes more anxiety.

When my two boys were young, I could make things all better. The skinned knee, the missed pop fly, the failed math test—I could figure out a way to help them forget the pain and move on. That’s not so easy with my clients. They have been struggling and suffering, sometimes for years. Saying, “it will be ok” isn’t going to cut it. So, I put my legal skills to work to do the best job I can for them.

Sometimes even my best isn’t enough. These days, after being a sympathetic ear all day, I’m exhausted. Maybe you are too.

That’s where the puzzles come in. I’ve been doing a lot of them these days. Part of the reason is simply that there wasn’t much else to do. I was tired of looking at a computer and Twitter is fun, but generally not a place filled with calm or joy. (One exception, Thoughts of Dog on Twitter.)

I’ve always loved crosswords and regularly work on the NY Times crossword on my commute to work on Metro each day. That’s not happening right now. Jigsaw puzzles clearly filled some sort of void. Why?

A few things come to mind.

First, when a puzzle piece fits in place, it’s a small measure of satisfaction. It’s nice and orderly, in contrast to my practice, which is filled with the messy and uncertain business of helping people and companies through crises.

Second, seeing the random pieces gradually transform into a coherent whole is delightful. If I keep plugging away at the puzzle, I’ll “win.” There’s no losing in puzzles. But in my law practice, losses happen.

Third, puzzles are a way to stay busy without staring at a device. Reading fiction is my go-to relaxation technique but after a day of reading for work, sometimes I don’t want to see any more words or any more glowing screens.

Fourth, there are no politics in puzzles. NONE.

Apparently, there’s some science behind this stuff, beyond the idea that puzzles are just fun.*

A Washington Post article interviewed a few researchers about why puzzles are so popular right now. One explained:

Puzzles give psychological order to the chaos we feel. When you come out of it, when you’ve solved the puzzle, then life seems to work better. I’ve had anecdotes throughout my life and experiences where, as people do puzzles, they seem to come out better in terms of mental health.

Another said:

I do think that, for some people, solving problems might be a very, very nice way to feel momentarily rewarded and put your mind away from the news. It’s a way to escape reality.

To all my fellow lawyers, hang in there and keep plugging away for your clients. I know I will. And then, at night, when no one is looking for answers from me and the emails have stopped for a while, I’ll be working on my next puzzle to get ready for another day in the trenches.

*Two fun puzzle facts (that have nothing to do with this blog):

  1. Bill and Melinda Gates always bring a jigsaw puzzle on vacation. Maybe that’s the secret to their financial success and happy marriage?
  2. There’s a good reason why puzzles are so expensive. They aren’t easy to make.

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