Solve an Impossible Equation
by Jennifer Paros
“I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind.”
--Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The other day I found myself thinking about the Chinese finger
trap. For those of you out of the know – it’s that woven, hollow
tube into which we insert our pointer fingers at either end, pull to
get out, and find ourselves stuck. If we keep pulling, we stay
trapped, but if we relax and stop trying to escape, the thing loses
I like this toy because it reflects how both real feeling trapped
can be, and that being trapped is always a product of struggling
against. So any time we hold thoughts in opposition to
something, - a person, an event, or a condition – our stance
creates the tension that produces this trapped “reality” – not
actually the external situation. One must engage the finger
contraption in a particular way in order to be trapped by it, and so
it is with life situations and writing.
When I first start writing a story, I feel free - like I can’t get
it wrong - because I don’t even know what the story is yet. Around
the first rewrite, however, it’s not uncommon for me to start
thinking about whether or not it’s “working” and if that thinking
turns to doubt and criticism- the “trap” factor engages.
Recently, in the midst of our kitchen remodel, after all the
demolition had been done and the room was reduced to a box with
subflooring and patched walls, it was time to paint. We considered
colors in the turquoise family and looked at three samples.
Everyone agreed on one – except me.
Having already checked the options in this color range in a few
brands, with only a couple days in which to paint, I attempted to
mix versions of turquoise out in my art studio. By evening I
retreated to my room, a defeated multi-turqois-ed puddle of
self-pity and distress. I felt trapped: if I agreed with my
husband, I was choosing a color that wasn’t what I wanted, but if I
persisted I might not find it in time or might realize I was
wrong. I doubted myself and started thinking maybe I was just
being too particular.
In the morning, my somewhat agitated husband left to pick up more
supplies, but returned with two samples of paint from another line,
one of which was the color I had been striving to mix. And we both
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
But why hadn’t I thought of checking more brands? Because
stuck and trapped requires us to pull against ourselves and against
the situation. I had been conflicted; although I was persisting in
my quest, I was not actually supportive of myself nor was I at peace
with the conditions of the time. I was concerned about what others
thought, questioning what I wanted, and judging the situation as
difficult. None of which was conducive to finding a solution.
Simple solutions don’t seem viable to the busy, worrying mind. But
like the Chinese finger toy, we are only stuck for as long as we are
pulling against what is.
“The pain that you create now is always some form of non-acceptance,
some form of unconscious resistance to what is. “
When it’s time for a baby chick to be born, he starts the process of
breaking out of his shell. Basically he pushes against
something – but the difference is the chick is in service to
expansion so doesn’t experience himself as trapped. He’s just
in a process. Pulling against life feels lousy not expansive.
Not long ago, while working on another draft of my book, I found
myself immobilized, thinking I had to solve an impossible puzzle
(the storyline). What finally shifted my experience was realizing
that I wanted to do the work for me. I wanted to give this
experience to myself. And so, like the baby chick, I aligned with a
self-serving mission: to take the steps necessary to allow myself to
expand and grow. And when I took this stance, it became much easier
for me to write. No longer was I trapped trying to figure out an
impossible equation, now I was in a process of doing something
positive for me, regardless of how it went. I didn’t need answers,
I only needed to show up and proceed however I could.
Freedom and resolution may seem impossible from wherever we are
currently standing in our lives or our work, but the truth is, our
experience of life is always in our own hands, for it is how we
engage the moment that determines how free we are.
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Jennifer Paros is a writer,
illustrator, and author of
Violet Bing and the Grand House
(Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.