If you’re familiar with doing jigsaw puzzles you may have already guessed that I’m referring to a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.

There was an item on local TV several weeks ago about a bloke who had almost finished his puzzle only to discover that he had a piece missing. If it had been me, I would have assumed that I’d dropped it somewhere or that a helpful member of the household had taken the piece in order to have the satisfaction of being the one to complete it (not that that actually happens in our particular household, you understand). Not so with this gentleman. He was adamant that he had not lost it and that the puzzle was defective. Therefore he asked the manufacturer for a replacement piece. At first they said ‘no’.

You would think that it would be so simple to help but it turns out that no two jigsaws are exactly alike. Although you may have the same picture cut by the same machine, they are cut separately. There are tiny differences between each one  so that even a fraction of a millimetre can affect whether the pattern matches or not.  I can vouch for that. The last puzzle we tried did not exactly match the picture on the box. The details were the same but the very edge of the picture had been lost in the cutting process. So, when you did the edge pieces you had to mentally move from the side of the picture on the box by a couple of millimetres or so to find the ones that matched.

Mind you, the problem of a missing piece can’t be a new one. On another box a manufacturer states that missing pieces cannot be supplied but that, in such an event, they will rectify the error by sending a complete replacement puzzle in exchange for half a dozen pieces from the defective set (as a precaution, I suppose, against people trying to con them into giving an extra set away free).

The TV story ended happily when it was later reported that the man had received, by way of exception, a replacement piece specially crafted for him. I suspect that it had had to be made by hand and probably cost as much to do as to make a completely new picture cut by machine.

There’s more to life than jigsaw puzzles but they do provide us with a metaphor when solving problems. We define the problem by finding the edge pieces; we get frustrated when it’s hard to tell what fits where like an area of blue sky all the same colour even if the pieces have different shapes but only slightly so. (We’ve been challenged with acres of snow or grass or water or red boxes.) Recently we started on a puzzle only to find that some of the pieces had, somewhere along the line, been bent, ever so slightly, out of shape. The result with those ones was that they fitted the pattern and really did have to be bent into shape. This is not normal procedure. Usually, if the piece does not fit the space then it goes elsewhere even if the pattern seems to match.

You might say that life is like a jigsaw puzzle. If so, we only have the edge pieces for two of the sides, we don’t have a picture on the box, nor do we know how many pieces we’re supposed to have. But it would be true to say that no matter how similar two appear, each one is cut differently and each one is unique.

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