I have always been the type of kid who would rather do puzzles than watch television or play video games. For as long as I can remember, I have found that puzzles are the most captivating and interesting way to keep myself entertained, as they require active creativity and problem solving. But working on puzzles is much more than just a way to pass time when I am bored. Whenever I am in need of a distraction, or I cannot solve a challenge in my life, I start working on puzzles instead.
Puzzles are a refuge for me, a way to escape from all the stress of daily life. In high school, I often felt overwhelmed socially, academically and personally. My life felt like a million piece puzzle taken apart. I struggled with connecting to other people and maintaining friendships. I went to a really small school, so I had to try to stay friends with the same people I had known since kindergarten. At the same time, however, I was terrified of getting lower than the near-perfect grades I typically received. The first time I got below a 90 on a science test I cried because as a perfectionist, I hated the idea of disappointing my parents, teachers and friends. I tried everything to cope, from meditation apps to therapy, but nothing seemed to work. Except for puzzles, which became my lifeline.
I first began to do puzzles after reading a book that had a puzzle attached on the back. The book was in Hebrew, which my family spoke at home, and was called “Caspion the Little Fish.” I loved to read from the moment I learned how, and that passion introduced me to my passion for puzzles.
I find the process of putting together a puzzle to be extremely calming, because it forces me to focus on the task at hand, allowing me to momentarily forget about other stressors. Whenever I do puzzles, my mind is completely absorbed in them. There aren’t many other activities that are able to distract me from all of my other thoughts the same way as puzzles. By engaging in an activity that requires focus, problem-solving, perseverance and patience, I am able to completely occupy my mind. The more complex and challenging the puzzle, the greater the distraction. One of the most memorable puzzles I’ve done is a three-dimensional Hogwarts one. This puzzle was the first three-dimensional puzzle I completed, and it took me almost an entire summer to finish.
Ironically, the puzzles that began as a distraction also became my teachers, helping me understand that real world problems also need to be solved slowly, piece by piece. When I want to fix a friendship, or improve a grade, I begin with small, easily achieved goals. Once I complete these goals, I move on to more complex ones. I repeat this until all these small steps add up to a fully solved, previously daunting task. Along the way, there are often bumps, as not every attempt leads to the expected outcome, and sometimes multiple tries are needed before seeing an improvement. Perfection is not realistic, and there are so many things I cannot control. Even if I went to great lengths to try to fix a friendship, I cannot control whether the other person will put in that same effort. However, instead of torturing myself with the need for perfection and control, I now know to work through each step until I get my desired outcome.
My favorite kind of puzzles to do are three-dimensional ones. While I had been building these puzzles since I was 13, I didn’t appreciate them until spring 2020 because I never had the same amount of free time. During quarantine, I built many of these puzzles, which decorated the room where I attended class. From the Empire State Building to the Taj Mahal, I filled my days with puzzles depicting places all over the world. I loved being able to build models of landmarks that I dreamed of visiting, especially during a time where travel wasn’t a possibility. Both the finished puzzle and the challenge of building it provided an escape from the otherwise monotonous days of virtual school.
During the pandemic, we had to learn how to deal with the unanticipated in life. When I was younger, my mom used to tell me and my sister that “life is like a puzzle, all the pieces always fall into place.” At the time we rolled our eyes at this cliche, but now we’ve also added the caveat that sometimes you need to test a piece before it fits. I’ve definitely come to appreciate the importance of embracing the unexpected challenges I will face, as they serve as just another opportunity to problem-solve, like I do with puzzles.
Maya Rezak (25C) is from Plainview, New York.