I will never forget the young man who came to see me years ago about a friend of his. It seemed that every time this young man, who I will call “Joe,” began to move forward in his life or career, his friend — who struggled with a substance abuse problem — would have a crisis and Joe would put everything on hold to help him. It was like clockwork, he told me.
Joe was a faithful Christian and felt obligated to help his friend. So, he would regularly stop everything and try to get his friend help. Joe would bail him out, literally, and set him up with counseling or some other resource he needed. In at least one instance, Joe found his friend a decent job. But his friend would soon not show up to counseling or his job, only to re-appear again with another crisis, usually a financial or emotional one.
In the last episode, which occurred the week Joe came to see me, Joe had just gotten engaged and his family was coming to visit to throw him a party. They would be staying at his small place. As if on cue, his friend called to say he was getting evicted and asked if he could move in for a while. Joe looked at me and said, “Pr. Bob, I know I am supposed to be a good friend and all, but am I obligated to help every time he needs it?” My response was quick and decisive, “No, you are not.”
But I wanted Joe to understand why and to think about it. So, I sent him the following fable, called “The Bridge,” written by the late rabbi Edwin Friedman. Please take a moment and read through it.
“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 in the tension of the rope. ‘I accept your choice,’ the man said, at last, and freed his hands.”
And that’s the way the story ends.
I was somewhat caught off-guard at the ending when I first read the story. I couldn’t imagine letting the rope go, or thinking that may be the right choice; it runs against Judeo-Christian values, doesn’t it? But the more I speak with folks like Joe, the more I see those who do the equivalent of throwing a rope of neediness around relationships, and the more I see people like Joe held captive. And in being held captive, they unwittingly become part of the problem — a type of co-addict — never quite reaching their potential either. And that’s not healthy for anyone.
Yes, God wants us to help people. However, there comes a point at which we must realize the limitation of our abilities. We cannot fix all the world’s problems, and in the end, we really can’t make anyone do anything.
For many Christians like me, we have lived much of our lives accepting other people’s ropes, and then struggling to hold on. We can’t bring ourselves to let go because of guilt. And that’s not healthy either.
Perhaps part of growing as a person of God is to learn the art of helping when we can, looking for those opportunities to serve, but also coming to grips with the fact that we can’t do it all, and not allowing other people’s expectations of us to guilt us into thinking we can.
Joe and I visited again. We discussed ropes, bridges, obligation and guilt. Before he left, he said, “I guess I just feel bad because I know I was the only one helping him. I don’t where he is going to get help now.”
“I don’t either,” I responded. “But he’s a big boy, and maybe now that you’re not rescuing him one more time, maybe he will find a way to help himself.”
Now that would be healthy.