Saturday, July 08, 2006

Escaping the pinch of the finger trap

Have you ever felt the pinch of a finger trap puzzle?

A finger trap looks harmless. It's just a small tube made of paper. Perhaps a jokester friend handed one to you and said, "Here...stick your fingers in this thing, then pull them out." How hard can that be?

So you play along, stick your fingers into the tube, pull, and find your fingers stuck. Trapped. Pinched.

Also puzzled, and probably frustrated, most of us react by pulling harder. Getting our fingers out must involve pulling, right? So we pull harder. And the finger trap pinches tighter.

The secret of the finger trap is our belief that pulling harder ought to work. But pulling harder doesn't work; that's what makes it a trap. The solution to escape the finger trap is to push gently first. Pushing into the tube releases its pinch. Only then can we carefully remove one finger at a time.

Escaping a finger trap isn't just a matter of pushing, though. It's also a matter of understanding first how the trap works. First we need insight into its mechanism. When we discover our initial belief works badly, that pulling harder pinches tighter, then we adjust our belief to accomodate a method that works.


Reading the news, hearing the news, watching the news, how many of those stories are about pulling harder on traps that are pinching tighter? Why does it seem so difficult to accept that pulling harder pinches tighter? If it didn't work yesterday, and it's not working today, why believe that pulling harder might suddenly work tomorrow?

A finger trap is just a toy, and its mechanism seems simple. So it's no big deal to adjust our belief about how it works.

If we believe that life is hard, that life is complicated, that there are no easy answers, that a lifetime of effort to pull harder must be rewarded, then a simple solution like, "Push gently," can seem disappointing. Judging by the news, apparently we believe that difficult problems deserve difficult solutions.

There are plenty of times when we claim we seek easy answers. When offered simple solutions, however, how often do we reject them by saying, "Well, that can't be right!" ?

The secret to escape a finger trap is to understand it first. Insight into the mechanisms that trap us leads to solutions that actually work. What we believe about the mechanisms of our world make a huge difference in our ability to live freely--or to feel pinched tightly in a giant finger trap.


Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, offers a remarkable source of insight into difficult situations and insight into beliefs that can trap us.

The Sustainability Institute is one organization that applies the same thinking to encourage solutions to global challenges.

To see how this piece fits related pieces please visit


Ron Hudson said...

I am reminded of the monkey whose fist won't come out of the hole into which he has stuck his open hand. If we fail to find a way out, then we might find consequences greater than just discomfort...we may be enslaved. said...

How do we get out of this hole? I know, we can dig our way out.

etbnc said...

Thanks for your interest, y'all.

After I wrote my deliberately low-key piece, I found a sharp, biting political satire using this metaphor at a blog called Richard Perle's Musings: "I was confounded by the most stunning puzzle"

That one is two years old, but sadly, more relevant than ever.

Patry Francis said...

Great piece. Glad I found you via Erin at Poetic Acceptance.

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying your blog. This entry, as well as many others, remind me of the work of Daniel Quinn. You remarks remind me of an apropos quote from Quinn: "If the world is saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all."