Glimpses of Grace Donald Stoesz
Correcting Imbalances

Jigsaw Puzzle of Human Behaviour


Have you ever put pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle? Were you able to match the shapes and colours of different sections? Were you able to relate them to the larger picture? I sometimes feel as though I am putting puzzle pieces together when I work with people. There are so many fragments scattered about that I am not sure which one to pick up first. After matching two shapes, I am stymied again because the other pieces are of a different colour. I spend hours putting two or three pieces into the right place.

Some sections of the puzzle are easier to put together than others. Pictures of faces, birds, and wagons go together because the images are recognizable.  Multiple pieces of blue sky, green grass, and dark shadows are more difficult to work with. We wait until the border and familiar images emerge before tackling the larger opaque sections.

Jigsaw puzzles represent an analogy of what human beings are like.  We are complex beings that come in different shapes and sizes. The reasons for our actions, relationships, and personality types are hard to understand. One aspect of our character varies significantly from other ways that we relate.

The complexity of human behaviour has been evident in my work as a chaplain. Inmates come to me because they only know the superficial reasons for committing their crimes. They do not understand the deeper reasons for acting out in such a violent and abusive manner. They regard themselves as rational human beings who have made responsible decisions in the past. And yet here they are, in prison, serving time for serious offences.

Their lives are a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Some aspects of their personality are well grounded. They excelled at school and kept a steady job. They fell in love and were married for a number of years. They were respectable members of the community.

These inmates’ characteristics are the easier pieces to put together in a jigsaw puzzle. A mature adult emerged as the offender grew up, became responsible, and fit into the community.

Other pieces of the puzzle are hidden from view. The inmate put on a brave face when they went for a job interview. They did not know what they were doing when they said yes to a life long relationship with their spouse. Challenges of these commitments became evident as time progressed. The inmate was unable to put the knowledge that he learned in school to good use. He pretended to know how to do things. He was unable to form an emotionally healthy relationship with his wife. He felt inadequate in raising his children. His children reminded him of how poorly he had been raised, how insecure he felt as a teenager in making decisions, and how immature he still was, in his thirties and forties and fifties.

These aspects of an inmate’s personality can be compared to the more difficult pieces of the puzzle to put together. The pieces remain scattered because of their obscure colours. The greys, blues, and greens all blend together. Inmates cannot put these pieces together because these aspects of their character have not yet matured.

One man that I have worked with only looked at aspects of his life in which he had excelled. He told me, “I have been a good worker all of my life. I do not know why I keep being punished.” I asked him when he had committed his crime. “Well, during the week of holidays when I was binge drinking. I am not an alcoholic. I only go on a long drunk once or twice a year.” This man was over fifty years old when I met him as a young chaplain.  He had first come to federal prison before I was born.  This was the third time that he had been in prison.[1]

This man did not want to look at his alcoholism. This habit was entrenched in his life. He had learned to function as an alcoholic while getting into serious trouble every ten years. This man defined himself primarily in terms of his work ethic. He was told when he grew up that as long as he worked hard, nothing else mattered.

This conversation took place thirty years ago in the Federal Training Centre (CFF) in Quebec. The government established this medium-security prison in the early 1960s to teach trades to inmates. Inmates could enroll in bricklaying, construction, school, the culinary arts, gardening, metal fabrication, upholstery, and cabinet making. It was only in the 1980s that the government made programming for alcoholism, spousal abuse, violence, sexual offences, gang involvement, and selling drugs mandatory. Many of the trades listed above were abandoned in favour of a programming model. Inmates had to learn to deal with the source of their offending patterns.

The life of the fifty-year old inmate described above imitated the priorities of his generation. He was told in the 1950s that work was the most important aspect of life. This inmate decided that as long as he only binged on his holidays (and drank on weekends and during evenings after work), that he was alright. The fact that he came to jail for two or three years every decade was simply an inconvenience.

This man could not adjust to the fact that in the 1980s he had to take programming for his offences. He felt that it was no-one’s business that he drank on weekends and evenings. He was doing time for his offences. That was punishment enough.  He did not want to face the fact that he had caused serious harm to other people (as well as to himself).

The second example comes from the true story of a British woman executive who married an American man by the name of Clark Rockefeller. The story has been made into a movie entitled, Who is Clark Rockefeller?[2] The man claimed that he was related to the famous Rockefeller family. He invited himself to their family reunions. He told his wife that he only worked pro bono (for free) on architectural projects because he could not as a Rockefeller stoop to working for hire for real money.

The woman accepted his explanations. They had a child together and were married for ten years. There came a point when the woman could no longer believe everything her husband was telling her. She hired a lawyer to look into the case. The lawyer discovered that the man was from Germany and that Rockefeller was not his real name. After the spouse filed for divorce, the husband kidnapped the girl. He claimed that he should get custody because he had spent the last ten years raising their daughter. It took the police over a month to find the man and arrest him.

In a poignant scene at the police station, the woman acknowledges imbalances in her life. Given the trauma of having her daughter kidnapped and the true identity of her husband revealed, she looks at the policeman and says, “Am I that dumb (stupid)?” The policeman continues to look at the bottom of his coffee cup without answering.

The woman’s financial success as a well-paid executive blinded her to the lies that her husband told her. In fact, the woman was attracted to her husband precisely because of his so-called elite connections to the Rockefeller family. The woman wanted desperately to believe that she had married into an historically rich and famous family. Her need for recognition deflected her ability to see the real facts at hand.

The woman in the story was not much different from the alcoholic man that I interviewed. The older man who went binge drinking and committed crimes wanted desperately to believe that he was alright.  He wanted to be accepted on the basis of the mores of the generation in which he grew up. That generation believed in the value of hard work regardless of the personal state of one’s alcoholism or marriage.

In addition to the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle, the illustration of a house explains imbalances in people’s lives. I suggested to the alcoholic man that his life priorities could be compared to the four walls of a house. Work represented one wall. The man had had numerous financial successes. He became a pilot later in his life and flew around the country in his small Cessna plane (sometimes while being blacked out).

The man’s family represented the second wall. The man had been married and had raised a family. Although he recently divorced, the man’s ability to be part of a family represented a second positive aspect of his life. The man had a sense of belonging to something beyond himself.

The third wall had to do with the man’s Christian faith. He came regularly to the worship services I conducted in prison. He expressed regret and remorse for what he had done. He experienced God’s comfort and love as he spent time in jail.

This man’s work, family, and faith represented three solid walls of his house. He had spent years building these walls and securing them on a solid foundation. The problem was that the fourth wall was missing. This non-existent wall had to do with the man’s alcoholism.

The man’s inability to acknowledge this non-existent wall allowed rain to fall and snow to blow into his house. The house could not be adequately heated in spite of the fact that he had provided a roof over his family’s heads. The family could not live comfortably in the house because of this missing wall. They decided to move out because they could no longer tolerate the situation. The man also had to move out and go to jail.  Living in the house was not sustainable.

The man was unable to see this missing wall. The man was so entrenched in viewing his alcoholism as normal and in maintaining the other three walls that he refused to see the “big” thing that was causing his house to crumble.

The woman described above was in the same situation She had worked so hard to become successful that she had neglected personal aspects of her life. The love of her life who happened to be a Rockefeller represented a winfall. Not only was she now wealthy and successful. She now had status and fame because she had married into the Rockefeller family. Her need to be recognized blinded her to the real situation at hand. The lies and false image of her husband represented the fourth missing wall that brought her house of cards to the ground. The woman had to take another look at the personal aspects of her life in order to grow into a well-rounded person.

The movie, Life as a House,[3] uses the idea of a house to portray imbalances in people’s lives. An older divorced man discovers that he is dying of cancer. His ex-wife has married another man. The two younger children resent their new step-dad. The third insecure teenager is drawn to selling drugs and doing sexual favours.

The older man decides to rebuild his father’s old house. He takes custody of his teenage son and recruits him to remodel the house. The older man reconnects emotionally with his ex-wife. The family learns to love each other all over again. The older man’s discovery that he is dying represents a wake-up call. The rebuilding of his father’s house represents a metaphor for rebuilding his own life. The story ends with his son giving the house to a young girl in a wheelchair. His grandfather was responsible for her injury as a result of a car accident.

We as an audience only find out at the end why the father had such anger and resentment in his life. We realise only at the end why it was so difficult for the father to rebuild his father’s old house – perched as it was in an elite neighbourhood overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles. The father’s courage to rebuild his father’s house gave him the courage to rebuild his own life – and bring some healing to his son, ex-wife, and other children at the same time.

Each of these examples demonstrates imbalances in peoples’ lives. They also show that a crisis can cause people to change, to take stock of their lives, and to build a fourth wall. Acknowledging the missing fourth wall helps to put everything else into perspective. Accepting the fact that one is an alcoholic, that one has not worked at healthy relationships, and that one is dying represents the first step in healing and righting the ship that is listing to one side (to use another metaphor).

 Outline of Book

  1. Imbalances in Our Lives

The first chapter names imbalances in our lives in order to overcome our skewed view of reality and unfufilled existence. While not exhaustive, impulsive behaviours, unconscious desires, oedipal complexes, insecure identities, conflicted personalities, codependent relationships, saviour figures, delusional thinking, manufactured innocence, and post-modernity influence our lives. The nonrational aspect of our Being has a great deal to say about how we process things rationally. Reflection on each of these human behaviours helps us understand what we need to do to change.

  1. Modernity Relived

The second chapter uses the enticement of the Eaton’s department store to relive the modern ideals with which our parents grew up. These ideals are still real in the sense that we dream of infatuation, love, commitment, marriage, babies, families, and houses. It remains to be seen how many of these idyllic settings need to be dismantled in order for us to embrace the realities of post-modernity.  Projection of the Eaton’s department store as a metaphor for our desires is both real and unreal.

  1. Into the Woods to Solidify our Identity

The third chapter uses James Lapine’s play, Into the Woods, to outline the relevance of post-modernity, oedipal complexes, and a disassembled self. The play represents a post-modern tale told within the context of modern ideals. The first act follows several fairy tale characters fulfilling their dreams of marriage, love, family, children, independence, and bravery. The second act dismantles these dreams through experiences of infidelity, death, insecurity, separation, fear, and self-doubt.

Lapine makes extensive use of the Oedipal complex to demonstrate the insecurity of his fairy tale characters. Fathers, mothers, witches, and parental authority figures control the future decision making of Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his wife, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. Each of these persons achieves some semblance of self-esteem and courage in the face of dangers and undo influences.

The Baker’s wife reveals the degree to which a person can become disassemblied by subconscious desires. She is content in her marriage to the Baker and happy with the birth of her child. In spite of this situation, the wife falls into a tryst with one of the fairy tale Princes. She cannot believe that she is allowing this infidelity to happen. She recognizes that this brief inattentive moment of a powerful wish fulfillment is unravelling everything in which she believed.

The dialogue during this scene echoed everything I heard when I listened to inmates disassembling themselves in the moment of their crimes. Offenders’ crimes magnified a hundredfold the consequences of the “small indiscretion” on the part of the wife. While Lapine conveniently kills off the wife after this scene, the inmates in my office were not so fortunate. They continued to live with the consequences of their crimes while still believing that life was still worth living.

  1. Resolution of Conflicted Personalities

The fourth chapter uses the movie, American Beauty,[4] to illustrate the consequences of being unable to resolve conflicted personalities. Lester Burnham is conflicted between being responsible and working at a minimum wage job. He is attracted to his daughter’s teenage friend because his marriage is falling apart. His wife, Carolyn, is in the same position. She sleeps with her alter-ego of a real estate agent, Buddy Kane, while dreaming about killing her husband. Their daughter Jane has similar fantasies. She tells her emo boyfriend Ricki that someone should get rid of her geeky Dad. Her father’s attraction to her girlfriend repulses her. Then there is Ricki’s father, Frank Fitz. He is a repressed homosexual living within the body of a macho Army colonel.

Some of these characters resolve their personality conflicts legally and morally while others resort to violence and drugs. Carolyn reduces herself to tears of grief rather than shooting her husband. Lester stops within a moment of rape when Angela tells him that she has never slept with anyone. Jane falls in love with Ricki rather than acting out her anger on her parents. Ricki takes pictures of Jane rather than escaping into drugs and voyeurism. Fitz is the only one who resorts to violence because he cannot face his attraction to other men. He ends up shooting Lester because he believes that Lester had a homosexual encounter with his son Ricki.

Inmates I have met are more like Fitz in their resolution of conflicted personalities than the other options presented. Viable pro-social alternatives presented in the movie in the face of significant emotional imbalances enable viewers to consider positive options of their own.


The conclusion outlines three keys areas of growth: naming subconscious desires, solidifying identity, and resolving conflicted personalities. It summarizes the findings of the book so that the reader has a better understanding of imbalances in their own lives. Naming these imbalances represents the first step in making things turn out right.

pdf download of manuscript