The Puzzles of the Past

RubikIt was on Christmas morning 1980 that I discovered a Hungarian professor’s maddening invention beneath the holiday tree. It was Erno Rubik’s magic puzzle, brought to America: The Rubik’s Cube. With a few twists I was hooked, but I never figured the thing out. The Rubik’s Cube is still the most popular toy ever produced, all these decades later, and theoretically, it is easily solved. No matter its configuration, it can be tidied up in twenty turns or less. And in practice, this is confirmed. Dutchman Mats Valk has solved a Cube in less than six seconds. But I suspect that of the 350 million cubes sold over the years, most of them are in the same condition as the one I received – unsolved.

I worked on mine for a year, and despite my best efforts, I could only solve three sides at once. Finally, I gave up and did what my friends were doing with their Cubes. I peeled off those colorful stickers and reapplied them in the correct location. If I hadn’t given up, I might still be wasting my time, twisting and turning that infernal piece of plastic, attempting to sort out what could not be sorted.

There are some puzzles that cannot be solved. We don’t have the ability, and there is no cheating; no “peel-and-reapply” solutions. Death. Unjustified suffering. A silent heaven when we pray. Who hasn’t twisted and turned these things over in their mind, losing sleep and years in the process, trying to navigate such “swamplands of the soul” (as James Hollis describes these things)?

Most of these conundrums are captured in a single word: Yesterday. For every person wrestling with what is happening today; for every person anxious about what might happen tomorrow, there are a dozen people stuck in what happened yesterday. We take our past experiences and we work them over and over and over again, getting bogged down, wasting life, and we can’t seem to let the past go.

We are always peering over our shoulders; always trying to re-envision a happier past; always staring into the rearview mirror. So it should be no wonder why we can’t keep our lives on track, why we keep crashing into the metaphorical ditch. What else could happen when we maneuver through life while looking backwards?

Yet, we are all moving forward. That is where life is lived. That is where God is leading, and the road he is creating, as with the beautiful prose of the prophet Isaiah, more than apropos as a new year begins: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing…I am making a way in the wilderness.”

We can’t keep working through the past, attempting to solve what can no longer be solved, and live a free and peaceful life today. We have to let go of yesterday and move further down the road. Does this sound like “quitting” or like “giving up?”

Well, return to Rubik’s Cube. This is almost impossible to believe, but according Erno Rubik himself, there are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Cube. So if you turned the Cube one turn every second, it would take you nearly 1500 trillion years to go through every permutation!

When viewed from this perspective, it makes perfect sense to give up on solving some of our problems, for we don’t have the time to obsess with unending analysis of how our lives could have been different. We don’t have the years to navel gaze at our pain and our problems.

Simply, there comes a day when we must put down our puzzles; a day to quit working so hard on what we cannot fix; a day to lift our heads and see the God-given road that leads to life; a day to give up “all hope of a better past,” and start living again. We are granted only so many days among the living, so we had better spend those days, living, not scrutinizing every twist and turn of our past.