Why we solve crossword puzzles

We tend to call solving crossword puzzles a “pastime” or even a “habit” rather than an “addiction,”  though of course only a thin line separates one from the other.  But setting aside the question of addiction, i.e. being irresistibly drawn to do something that is definitively bad for oneself, what is the attraction of the puzzle?

I’m not talking, here, about “health benefits.”   We’ve all heard, I assume, that “studies show” that doing crosswords “may” inhibit the development of mental deterioration such as Alzheimer’s.  I haven’t looked too closely at those studies myself.  Makes sense that using one’s mind might be the best way not to have it atrophy, so it might be true.  Worth a shot, anyway.

But I don’t think that’s why we do them.   Most of the “benefits” are obvious:   “Relaxation,”  we say.  Definitely.  Yet we also say, “stimulation.” And it’s that combination — stimulation and relaxation simultaneously — that characterizes a lot of what’s most enjoyable in life.

I think of skiing down a nice slope.  In an ideal world, complete exhilaration at the same time as feeling completely relaxed.   (Nearly makes freezing to death on the way up in the chairlift and fearing for your life you won’t break a limb worthwhile!)

It’s too much to ask of the humble crossword to provide much in the way of exhilaration.   It’s a tamer sport, but that’s on of it’s charm.   There’s always the risk of falling out of one’s arm chair it’s true, or that one’s shriek of delight at solving one corner of a puzzle might scare the hell out of the cat who will be forced to jump off one’s lap in terror.   And there’s the risk that the frustration will be too much to bear.   That one will find oneself to sucked into a puzzle that leaving it unsolved feels traumatic, almost sinful.

The puzzler is tempted, of course, to acts of desperation, like just plain looking up answers.   But the beauty part of crosswords is that that’s okay too.  It’s just between you and yourself.  There’s no “should” here.   You can say, “That’s it.  I’ve done what I feel like doing.”

The other pleasure is that the solving does get smoother, more fun and less torture, more self-contained and less even needing a connection to the internet, as time goes on.

Learning in the arts is similar:  One almost always finds that one can do more the next time than one did the time before.  But in the arts, the “goal” is more ambiguous, more multi-faceted, more ambitious, than the humble puzzle.   In the arts there is no such thing as a pure and simple “solution.”   At the same time, the arts (save for the hermit in the mountain cave or the aesthetic esthete who eschews any connection to “the public”) require an audience, and almost always require a “performance” a “showing of one’s work” to be meaningful.  When you’re done with your puzzle, you can throw it in any appropriate receptacle.  That’s a beautiful thing.

So we can sit back on a quiet Sunday or on a Wednesday on the train to work or perhaps a Thursday evening after the day’’s events are done, and let our mind focus on a simple if challenging task that has absolutely no consequences beyond the passage of time.   That’s a still more beautiful thing.

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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning