The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which to burn.
– David Russell –
During the Roman Empire, it was common practice for military commanders who were concerned about their armies retreating during intense battle to burn the bridges they crossed in order to block any form of escape. It was
To ‘burn a bridge’ is a bold and risky move. A bridge is a structure that allows for passage over terrain that is formidable or impossible to navigate. It takes time and skill to build bridges. We build bridges in relationships, careers, cultures and communities. To ‘burn a bridge’ means to destroy what has been built and to make a return extremely difficult. In other words, to burn a bridge is to destroy connection and access that may have taken years to build. No wonder the idea of burning bridges comes with warnings and hazard signs. And no wonder liminality, this concept of letting go and finding yourself with minimal connection to the past, is so terrifying.
So should we live our lives in such a way that we are preoccupied with keeping our bridges intact? Should we avoid ruffling feathers at all costs in case our bridge is threatened? And is there a time in life when burning bridges is not just a necessary ending but the only way forward? Maybe some bridges have become the highway to hell?
Thirty years in church pastoral ministry taught me that I needed to be ‘nice’ at all costs and that my energy needed to be spent ensuring that bridges remain intact. As a ‘pastor’ it was not just my job but my expected duty to defuse any and all situations that had bridge burning potential. This required an immense amount of energy as I tried to ensure that everyone ‘played nice’. Over time I also paid little heed to whether my bridge burning prevention scheme lined up with the values I held …
The voice of conscience, however, is not silenced easily. Slowly the murmur of this inner compass began to rise above the din of my people-pleasing, bridge-maintenance addiction. The need to stay true to people and things I valued and held precious became greater than my fear of being disliked … and the bridges started burning.
Hindsight is a most wondrous gift. I look back now not with the overwhelming anxiety and grief that gripped my life in those days when so many bridges were being razed to the ground. Years of what I considered bridges of friendships and belonging lay in ashes. Disappointment took the place of grief and anger. Yet over the last year, something else has risen from the ashes … gratitude. Profound and deep gratitude. Burning bridges saved my life. If people had cared or enquired I would never have pushed off the shores and set sail to the winds of liminality … I would never have learnt to deconstruct dominant religious ideas that paid homage to fear and superstition instead of faith … I would never have discovered this rebirth of life. I am grateful now … but it took me a few years to get there!
I don’t recommend random bridge burning exercises. They are not a pleasant experience. Really, it’s a death experience. What once was, no longer is. The gates have shut. There is no going back. And maybe, dear reader, that is where you are right now – in this silent and lonely space of watching bridges burn and experiencing every emotion that this ending brings with it. I do not in any way want to undermine your grief – because it is real and needs to be fully felt and observed. I can perhaps offer you some hope in reflecting on my story a few years on. I have found that life creeps from the ashes. I also have discovered new bridges that line up with what I hold dear. Bridges of connection that hold me for who I am and not for what people would like me to be. I have stumbled upon bridges of grace that I would never have discovered in my tiny, cloistered existence.
There is a season for everything in life. A season to burn bridges and a season to build them. Sometimes we can confuse the idea of burning bridges and a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness, the letting go of a perceived ‘debt’ that we think someone may owe us, does not mean we have to keep a bridge of connection intact. We can forgive and also recognise that some places are simply not safe anymore. They have become detrimental to our well-being. We can forgive and allow a bridge to burn. We need to give ourselves permission to live in peace and safety.
Whatever season you may be in, dear reader – may the bridges you build and cross be undergirded by hope and love. May you also find the courage to burn the bridges you need to, in order to live life to the full.
Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burned; some roads are never meant to be travelled again.
– Steve Maraboli –