"There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life..."
The first sentence of Edwin Friedman’s fable “The Bridge” provides the tension that runs through the rest of the story. If you are not familiar with this fable, you can read it here. Designed to help the reader discover the perils of accepting other people’s emotional baggage, the story involves two men—one who has set off on his life’s most important quest and the other who gets in his way. The two men meet on a bridge, and the second man, without explaining himself, hands the unsuspecting stranger the end of a rope. Before the first man can figure out what is going on, the second man, who has secured the other end of the rope around his waist, jumps off the bridge.
All of us are on a journey, and each of us is carrying some baggage with us. Much of that baggage is our own—our own problems, our own limitations, our own disappointments. But a lot of the weight we carry actually belongs to other people—our children’s failures, our spouse’s troubles, our coworkers’ crises, our friends’ issues. Often, that baggage is emotional. We share the anxiety, brokenheartedness, or pain of others by making it our own. Occasionally, that baggage is physical or financial, and the cost we bear has tangible consequences. Sometimes we carry others’ burdens out of love, thinking that one way to show our affection is by picking up their baggage as our own. Other times, we accept their burdens because of a sense of duty, convincing ourselves that a good parent or a good spouse or a good friend should be willing to carry that load. Pretty often, however, as Friedman’s fable suggests, other people dump their baggage on us without ever asking or without us ever making a choice to carry it.
Typically, I can carry the burdens of others for a while. As long as the road ahead of me is straight and smooth, I have enough physical and emotional strength to haul burdens that are mine and yours. Eventually, though, the road will become difficult. A crisis in my own life will strike, or maybe the weight of your problems will grow until they are too much for me to bear. When I reach that breaking point, I have to make a choice. Will I hang on to your baggage even if it destroys me, or will I let it go even though the weight might crush you?
One day, while walking through the city of Jerusalem, Jesus came upon a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you wish to be healed?” The man’s reply is shockingly helpless: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and, while I am going, another steps down before me.” The man had been waiting there for years but had nothing to show for it. Nothing, it seemed, would change this man’s condition. Even when asked by Jesus if he wanted to be healed, the man remained locked in his state of torpidity. “I have no one to help me,” the man said in resignation. But Jesus cut straight through his self-defeat and said, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk!” And that is precisely what the man did.
Amazing things happen when we let go of other people’s burdens. More precisely, amazing things happen to other people when we refuse to carry their baggage for them. Cyclical problems like addiction, infidelity, and hopelessness cannot be solved by a spouse or a loved-one. No amount of compassion can love someone out of their problems. Instead, they must square the burden on their own shoulders and continue down the road beside us.