When I was in the training for my Life Coach certification, I heard this one tale that really left an impression on me. It’s called The Fable of the Bridge and I share it with you now.
The fable begins with a man wrestling with his own thoughts about his future and what choices he wants to make about his life.
After much contemplation, he achieves great clarity and is excited about the vision he can see for his life. He starts off on the journey to his future.
He must travel to another town where an amazing opportunity has presented itself but he must get there by the next morning or the opportunity will pass.
He travels many hours, each step getting more excited about the life he is creating. As the full moon rises, he is alone in his thoughts as he starts crossing a bridge.
The man sees out of the corner of his eye a stranger coming towards him. He thinks the man approaching is putting his hand out to greet him. However, the stranger has the end of a rope in his hand with the other end wound around his waist.
The stranger asks the man to hold the end of the rope. Although perplexed, the man complies.
The stranger asks the man to hold on tight with two hands and then promptly jumps off the bridge toward the swift running deep river below. “Hold on!” the stranger cries.
The free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope’s length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull. He held tight despite being almost pulled over the side of the bridge.
Peering down at the stranger who was close to oblivion, the man yelled, “What are you trying to do?”
“Just hold tight,” said the other.
The man tried to haul the stranger in but he could not. He could not get enough leverage. His strength was almost perfectly counterbalanced by the other man’s weight.
“Why did you do this?” the man called out. “Remember,” said the other, “if you let go, I will be lost.”
“But I cannot pull you up,” the man cried. “Just hold on. I need you,” the stranger yells.
The man looked around for help, but no one was near. The man holds on for a while, and then calls, “Please, I cannot hold you. Please climb up.”
“I am your responsibility,” said the other. “Well, I did not ask for it,” the man said. The stranger cried, “If you let go, I am lost.”
The man tried to invent solutions, like tying the rope to the bridge, but could not find any that would work.
Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.
He thought if he just waited long enough, someone was bound to come and help pull the stranger up. He waited many hours, but no one came.
“Why did you do this?” he asked again. “Don’t you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?”
“Just remember,” said the other, “my life is in your hands.”
Time passed and a decision needed to be made. The man could not hold on much longer.
A thought occurred to him. If the stranger hauled himself up and he kept the end steady and pulled a bit, together they could get the stranger back to safety.
But the other wasn’t interested.
“You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.” “You must try,” the other shouted back in tears. “If you fail, I die.”
More time passed and finally, the point of decision arrived. The man said to the other, “Listen to me. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life, I hereby give back to you.”
“What do you mean?” the other asked, afraid.
“I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will help you if you help yourself.”
“You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. “You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.”
The man stated again, “I will not stand here and hold this rope. If you want to live, you must start moving now, and I will help you. Please, start now.”
He waited a few minutes, but there was no change in the tension of the rope. “I accept your choice,” the man said, at last, and freed his hands.
By the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman
Jacqueline Oliveira says
I don’t know where to go with this story which is why I imagine you’ve shared it with us… It is a conundrum for me as “responsible relationships to our fellow ‘man’ to support each other in spite of our degree of personal evolution,” seems paramount. I imagine I would have ended up doing the same thing, but the freeing of my hands would have been slow and gentle. Of course, that would mean I would miss my meeting. Britt! My head is spinning…which is why I imagine you’ve shared this with me….
Yes, this story can generate a lot of emotions — and it’s different for each person. At that time in my life, I was overly responsible for everyone else’s happiness and I could not imagine ever letting go of the rope. I had many such ropes wound around my own waist and I would have stayed on that bridge until I perished myself. The stark choices in this fable really helped me see that my own responsibility to others cannot exceed their own — that I cannot do more to help others than they are willing to do for themselves. Each person has choice and freedom, whether they recognize and act on that or not. Deep stuff.
This is such a perfect lesson right now. It is incredibly thought-provoking, in so many ways. I think it is difficult to know when to hold on and when to let go. On one hand, I think it is our responsibility to those around us to do what we can to help and not just stand idly by, watching someone drown. At the same time, what strikes me about this fable, is that the man jumped off the bridge in the first place and did not take any responsibility for his part in the situation… which makes it such a struggle. I think it’s great to give multiple chances and keep trying to help someone, but if you cannot do it, you must admit that to yourself and them. If someone is not willing to help themselves, there is often only so much that we can do. This is, of course, all easier said than done, and it’s really tough to figure out when to hold on, when to let go, and when to compromise and tie the rope to the bridge…. or ask someone else to switch out in holding the rope.
Like I said, this is perfect timing right now, as I am dealing with someone else’s addiction and am trying to figure out if they are really helping themselves or just telling me what I want to hear… and how much I can really continue to do. Thank you for your thoughtful and amazing posts, which really help those of us who read them.
It’s hard to know how best to support someone who is struggling, and more importantly, how to take care of ourselves while doing so. A wise friend once told me to consider whether my “help” was unintentionally keeping someone from learning their own lessons. That resonated because I often want to keep others from experiencing negative things but it may be part of their own growing to do so and then be transformed by them. That does not mean to ignore human suffering but rather to look at the bigger picture of spiritual evolution that may be unfolding.
Mike Arend says
I loved this little parable. The only thought I had the whole time I was reading it was our relationship with God (universe, source, spirit whatever you want to call it). I, as many young children were, was always told that “God helps those that help themselves”. I always wondered what that really meant, but now as I move from ambition to meaning in my life I know. We truley can only be responsible for ourselves and our actions. We can’t coerce others to be like, or think like us. Their changes must come from within themselves as well. No matter how much we want to help others, we have to remember that we can only help them surrender and allow themselves to realize that only they can make meaningful change in their lives. In this case, the stranger was trying to use guilt to make the the man do what he wanted (manipulation). Using this methed he will never get what he wants. It’s also similar to our relationship with our divine source because it’s how we humans just keep asking for things from God, promising change, but never wanting to accept responsibility for our actions. This way we can always blame God when things go wrong, which of course they will with this self defeating attitude. Just my 2 cents. Thanks for sharing this story. Take care, Mike.
Thank you for you thoughts, Mike. I like the connections you made to God/Spirit/the Divine. I certainly believe that we have a lot of power to co-create our lives with a higher power but we must fully step into our role as the generator of our experience. I also like how this parable made me look at how I try to “fix” things for others instead of helping them surrender to their own lesson and journey. Powerful stuff. Nice to connect with a fellow Canuck. =)
What if the man on the bridge needing help was the same man on top of the bridge, just a different part of his psyche.