The Courage To Let Go

Hanging on is not always the right choice.

The Fable of the Bridge by Rabbi Edwin Friedman presents a dilemma common to many of us. It describes a scene in which a young traveler embarks on a long trip on foot to accept a promising opportunity. During this journey he crosses a high bridge and encounters a strange man. This strange man extends the end of a rope to the traveler and then suddenly jumps off the side of the bridge. The stranger is tied to the other end of the rope so is suspended in mid air, being held up by the traveler on top of the bridge. It’s a tense and physically painful situation for both.

The traveler pleads with the stranger to climb up the rope and relieve him of the burden of holding him. The stranger repeatedly refuses and claims, “You are my responsibility. Don’t let go!”

The traveler, losing physical stamina, and thinking wistfully about his opportunity, becomes ever more desperate to free himself of this person. He attempts to tie the rope to something else. Without success. He pleads again and again with the stranger to do something about the situation. Nothing works.

Finally, when confronted with going over the bridge and dying himself — and never realizing his opportunity — the traveler lets go and moves forward.

We all face a similar challenge every day.

Most of us think that logic rules our decision making. Not true. We’d like to think that we’re rational people, doing what makes the most sense for us in the moment based on a discrete calculation. Not true again.

Logic plays a certain role, clearly, in how we act; but emotions, and specifically emotional attachments, factor much larger into the big picture. As humans we have instinctive drives to attach emotionally to other people. It starts for survival purposes. These attachments provide us safety, security, and opportunity. Some of these attachments help us, some hurt us, and some are mixed bags. Children need parental or guardian support to survive. Adults need relationships to make it.

So, it’s when we move forward with our lives and evolve that we’re usually confronted with attachments that no longer work. We want to move to another part of the country or world, yet we encounter a conflict with a person or expectation from where we live now. We want to step into a new career, yet we face opposition from people who like or want us to remain where we are now. We start a new relationship, yet we stumble over the legacy relationships — or even feelings — from the past.

Oftentimes our own self-image constitutes this “baggage” from the past. We see ourselves as someone who does this or doesn’t do that, regardless of the fact that these ideas are out of date or even self-destructive. It’s shocking how many people remain in miserable — even dangerous — situations because they believe that they deserve it. Their identity is defined by a certain treatment.

The stranger hanging on the end of the rope in the bridge story is symbolic. He could be a symbol of a person living with us right now or a symbol of a community of folks we grew up with. Either way, the power and pull of this symbolic figure is often mighty.

Letting go of the stranger, so to speak, is scary. There’s no happy face to put on it. Even though freeing ourselves of the stranger sounds good, and might indeed be good in the end, it’s still represents a death, or at least an end of something familiar.

Attachments to people and ideas are strong. They provide security, stability, identity, and more. Even if they no longer serve us, they likely once did. Saying good-bye to them equates to saying good-bye to part of ourselves. A little piece of us dies along the way.

Our world is dealing with giant challenges related to this concept. People in much of the world today are confronted with more information on a daily basis than people two generations back faced in a year (or more). We are asked to grow and change all the time. It can be dizzying.

Some of us are standing on the bridge holding ten strangers by rope. We can barely take it anymore. We can scarcely stay upright. We want relief, yet we can’t let go.

It takes courage to know that we will survive. It takes courage to know that we will give more to the world by freeing ourselves of these burdens. It takes courage to say good-bye to people and memories that once served us but no longer do.

Letting go leads to moving on.

Originally published at on August 19, 2015.