Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Bridge and the Rope: A Fable about (not?) being Responsible

I sometimes wonder about relationships and what sabotages them. I wonder about how much I should let others' expectations of me (as a person, pastor, Christian, Father, Husband) define me. What about when people want me to be responsible for their emotional well-being? Do you ever get that sneaking suspicion that someone is giving you the message that if you don't do such-and-such, they cannot be happy, fulfilled, at peace, whatever? And if they are unhappy, dissatisfied, not living up to their potential you feel responsible? Truthfully, this is one of my greatest struggles - getting absorbed into others' emotional spheres, and making my happiness contingent on others' happiness.

The always edgy and paradoxical  (late) Edwin Friedman says that some time ago he stopped trying to educate people and instead began trying to free them from this "syndrome". He developed a presentation called, How to Get Your Kid to Drop Out and Save $100,000 in Tuition. He began every session by describing the techniques he would introduce such as: how to escalate conflict, screw up communication, and increase the generation gap. He insisted that parents read everything they can about parenting to ensure that they become more anxious, and inconsistent, and less the kind of self-confident, non-anxious, challenging presence that could ultimately cost them a bundle.

Below I have included one of his Fables that I think relates. Tell me what you think.

It is a moonlit night and alone in his thoughts he starts crossing a bridge. The man sees out of the corner of his eye a stranger dressed much like himself 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 entwined around him.

The stranger asks the man to hold the end of the rope. Whilst 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. "I am your responsibility," said the other. "Well, I did not ask for it," the man said. "If you let go, I am lost," repeated the other.

The man looked around for help, tried to invent solutions but could not think of any that would work. He waited for someone to come and help pull the stranger up, but no one came. Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.

"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." 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."

He waited a moment. There was no change i the tension of the rope. "I accept your choice," the man said, at last, and freed his hands.

Thought? Perspectives? Insights? Questions?

  • How does this Fable relate to living at peace with others?
  • Does this Fable promote selfishness?
  • What would you do in this situation?
  • What do you do in these situations?
  • What do you think God wants you to do in these situations?


  1. hmmm very interesting and very thoughtful story brad. i actually happen to be going through this kind of circumstance as of now and will be for some time.... in my case which in many ways is the same situation and many ways different. i am trying to run after God and put faith in his hands. this story is something that i am struggling with in my relationship with charity. and i need to put faith in God which for me at this time is soo soo hard. i constantly am needing to rethink what im doing and acting. ultimately i have to be supportive of (the person that jumps of the bridge and see where it leads.) and i feel that in my situation i need to RUN and chase God for he gives me comfort and Knowledge and the strength to hold on to "that rope" however i feel at some point we need to find a way to move on in life and ultimately it takes time especially if there not just a stranger (in my case its someone i love and have for 3 years) there is no easy way out i just must put trust in God and remember no matter what happens in the end GODS WILL IS DONE. and in my case God will give her that strength to climb that rope and we will work together, OR God will give me comfort as i have to let go of that rope. i love this story and have never heard it before but it was good for me to hear. and i totally understand what its talking about

  2. I think the greatest selfishness is on the man who jumped holding the rope. I don't know if it "promotes" it though since he most likely dies in the end. I think that the man did the right thing, in trying his best to get the other man up, but after nothing was going to work to do the only thing he could and let go. I don't what I would would do. I know that I often find myself holding onto the rope all too often though. I can't just let go, even though thats maybe the best thing.

  3. We are social it even possible to not be defined by others?

  4. I came across this parable about 18 month's ago. I had just ended a very abusive marriage 6 month's prior and was still struggling with guilt, even though I had no control over the way my spouse had acted or his alcoholism. When he would show up drunk or call me to come get him I still came running. It was a vicious cycle! I had been praying that God would give me the strength to just walk away! I typed co-dependence into my search engine and this came up. IT CHANGED MY LIFE! I let go of the rope and over night my whole perspective changed. At the time I didn't realize it but I valued my self-worth on what I could do for others, not on who I am. Over the course of the next few weeks and month's I weeded out a few people and set up bounderies for the unhealth relationships in my life. I am now married and in a very loving and supportive relationship. I'm not suggesting that it's all because of this parable, more that this was the starting point that I needed! Self examination and lot's of prayer!

  5. I found this story about 15 years ago during the early years of my sobriety. It had a great impact on my ability to find sanity. One of the symptoms of my alcoholism was hanging on to whichever rope someone handed me. I learned how to let go of those ropes and now I don't even grab a hold. I just step to the side and say, Good Day!