Trapped: Trying to Solve an Impossible Equation

by Jennifer Paros 

“I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind.”

                                                    --Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

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 its grip.

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 loved it.  

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. “

                                                                      --Eckhart Tolle

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.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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