On a country road near where I was raised, there stood a large iron bridge. It had rusty trusses of oxide orange. It accommodated only one lane of traffic over loose, wooden planks. It ached like a slow, creaky door in a haunted house under the weight of a single vehicle. I crossed this bridge regularly, spanning the Coosawattee River (Yes, the same river that inspired James Dickey to write Deliverance), on the way to visit my paternal grandparents. This journey always terrified me.
Would this be the day the old bridge would collapse?
Would my father miss the lumber beneath our wheels and plunge us into the water below?
Would we suffer a head-on collision in the middle of the span, as some other driver failed to yield to our family’s massive Buick?
These are the questions that afflict anxious little boys from Appalachia (Those and ones derived from James Dickey’s petrifying novel, but I digress). When my school bus had to once crawl across the old Coosawattee River Bridge because of flooding, I had a full-on panic attack back on the fourth row, sure that the clapping boards would never bear the strain.
Then, one day it happened: The old iron bridge was condemned. Closed. Barricaded. All my fears had been grounded in reality after all, as the city fathers (Hopefully with the guidance of professional engineers) finally deemed the structure unsafe for travel. But that country road was too important to abandon. Too many travelers and communities relied upon it. Thus, a new concrete bridge was built in its place (A bridge that remains to this day). It was a two-lane bridge. An improved bridge. A steady, safe bridge. A better bridge.
All these decades later, I have been struggling to put my finger on a deep sense of personal unease. Unease about the world; about how people relate to and communicate with one another; and unease about my own role – my vocation and future – in all of this. I have come to understand that I am once again on that country road, looking across those rusty trusses. Our bridges, the ones that formerly served us well, the ones that we confidently relied upon for the longest time, can longer guarantee safe passage.
They cannot bear the weight.
They cannot accommodate the busy, multiple lanes of traffic.
They cannot be trusted to span the barriers between individuals and communities.
We need better bridges.
I think this is a societal-wide phenomena. “The times are a-changing,” to quote Bob Dylan, as the political, economic, social, commercial, and religious structures that have underpinned our greater community are “rapidly aging.” Consequently, each person has a choice: To regressively trust the perilous, collapsing status quo; or to courageously “lend a hand” to create new paths forward. I am choosing the latter. I am choosing to build better bridges.
For my part, this work will be relational, and some might call it “religious” in nature (I am neither equipped nor inclined to engage other arenas, especially when there is more than enough work to go around for all disciplines). I find “religion” to be too limiting a category, however, part of the old structure. I’m speaking of spirituality; the development of the inner person. Borrowing words from Rob Lehman, I see my vocation as an effort “to reunite the inner world of spirit with the outer world of service. This requires a new form of logic, building bridges from within to without.” Thomas Merton is instructive here as well. He said, “If we attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, our own…capacity to love, we will not have anything to give to others. We will communicate nothing but our own ego-centered ambitions.”
Merton made the proper diagnosis of our current malignancy. Without grounding, the knowledge of who we really are; without an understanding of our most basic, personal beliefs and deepest motivations (That is, what one actually lives out, not merely professes); and without the inner work of “deepening our capacity to love,” we have nothing of substance to offer a changing world.
This is the only explanation for the popularity of the prosperity gospel, obsessed as it is with personal blessing and wealth, while a large portion of the world exists in squalor. This is the only explanation for how otherwise moral people can compartmentalize their faith, choosing an escalating 401K, or xenophobia, or racism, or rank nationalism over decency, compassion, and justice.
This is the only explanation for the incessant exclusion of those who come from different cultures, are of other faiths, or who have lifestyles or orientations out of the mainstream. This is the only explanation for our corporate failure to find consensus in the face of our most pressing challenges, and our inability to craft workable interfaith, intercultural, intergenerational solutions for the common good. This is the only explanation for strict religionists who would rather be right, orthodox, or pious at the expense of grace and kindness.
It is a failure to love. Our selfishness has eclipsed our self-awareness; self-centeredness has replaced sacrifice; and our capacity for narcissism has exceeded our inclination to serve others. How could it not be this way? Without a deep, grounded, inner ability to love, the only result possible is this current state of affairs. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that the West has enjoyed more religious freedom than most any culture in the last 2,000 years, but our religion has taught people doctrine and dogma instead of how to show love and compassion.
Now, back to that old, iron bridge that once spanned the Coosawattee River. In a small, monolithic, mostly one-dimensional community, a single-lane bridge is all that is needed. Traffic is light, the weight of the scant vehicles bearable, and the traffic moves more or less in a uniform direction. In other words, small capacity is not a problem when the area you are dealing with is small; not much love is needed to overcome minor differences in a limited space. But within the community we now live, the bridges we need will have to be of greater capacity, accommodating an expressway of diversity. Such bridges, better bridges, will have to be constructed with lots of love. Big Love. The kind of love that leaves no room for fear. Concrete-like love that is patient and kind. Unselfish love that does not demand its own way. Fierce, unshakable love that seeks justice. It is love that endures, reinforced by all that is lasting and hopeful.
Such a love is not sentimentality, emotionalism, or the false face of simply being “nice.” This love embraces self-examination, personal growth, radical openness, and is willing to take great risk. This is the only solution I see to our crumbling structures, structures that can no longer be propped up or apologized for. As Viktor Frankl understood, “No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. It is the loving person who enables and actualizes human potential.” Love is the way forward, and the Great Traditions, the wisest teachers, and the most developed perspectives have always understood this. Only love put into practice leads to a more peaceful, stable, just, and verdant world.
How then does love replace the rattling bridges disintegrating beneath us?
Well, that is the work isn’t it? And the work is unfolding. I’ll keep you posted.
– Ronnie McBrayer