There’s a fable by rabbi Edwin Friedman called “The Bridge.” A man is on his way to the opportunity of a lifetime. There is a bridge between him and his destination. He starts walking across it but is interrupted by a stranger.
The stranger asks the man to hold the end of a rope. The other end of the rope is tied around the stranger’s waist. The man is confused, but the stranger is polite, so he agrees. “Hold tight,” the stranger says, just before jumping off the bridge.
The man panics but manages to brace himself and keep hold of the rope. The stranger dangles between the bridge and the water below. The man’s grip is the only thing stopping the stranger from falling to his death. Overwhelmed, the man thinks, What have I gotten myself into?
The man tries to figure out how to get the stranger back to safety. The stranger is just so heavy, and the rope is just so long, that he cannot get enough leverage to pull the stranger up. No one else is around, there is no place to tie the rope, and the stranger offers no help. They are stuck. The man doesn’t want to let the rope go. The stranger would die. He also doesn’t want to miss the opportunity of a lifetime that awaits him on the other side of the bridge.
“Why did you do this?” the man calls out.
“Remember,” says the stranger, “If you let go, I will be lost.”
“But I cannot pull you up,” the man cries.
“I am your responsibility,” says the stranger.
“Well, I did not ask for it,” the man says.
“If you let go, I am lost,” repeats the stranger.
The man thinks of an idea! If the stranger climbs up the rope a bit, the man will have enough leverage to pull the stranger back to safety. The man tells the stranger his plan. He urges the stranger to hurry, but the stranger takes no action.
The man is irate now. “I want you to listen carefully,” he says, “Because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only my own. The position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.”
The man tells the stranger he is going to let go of the rope if the stranger does not make the effort. The stranger responds, “You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility.”
The man waits for the stranger to make his choice. The stranger either doesn’t believe the man or does not care, because he makes no effort.
The story ends when the man says, “I accept your choice,” and frees his hands from the rope.
There are many ways to interpret this story. I think about two things: care for others and personal boundaries. They counterbalance one another.
The man cares for the stranger. He also has boundaries—limits for what he will and won’t do—that are rooted in his self-regard and self-compassion. When the stranger is unwilling to pull his own weight, the man’s boundaries act as a counterbalance to his care for the stranger. The man will not sacrifice himself for someone who will not do their part.
I love how this story uses an extreme situation to illuminate a common challenge in relationships. It helped me evaluate the ropes in my life. I found some I need to climb. I found some I need to let go of.
I hope “The Bridge” helps you too. I welcome your thoughts.
This is Max’s note—an every-so-often message from Lessonly’s CEO about learning, leadership, and Better Work. Sign up below to subscribe via email. No spam, we promise!