“The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.” (David Russell)

David Russell is a world famous classical guitarist born in Scotland in 1953. I’m not sure where or when he uttered these words. And I don’t agree with them completely. I would say that knowing which bridge to cross and which to burn is AMONG the hardest things in life. But this idea is worth exploring for a few minutes.

These opposing actions are easily enough understood if considered separately. Generally when we refer to having a bridge to cross, we mean there’s something we need to do. We need to get from one side of the river to the other side. The bridge is our means for doing that. So to “cross the bridge” is to use the means by which we accomplish what needs to be done. We need to cross the river. The bridge is the means. Clear enough.

When we refer to “burning a bridge,” we usually mean there’s something that we’ve settled and we’re cutting off all means of addressing it again. Originally the expression pertained to an army crossing a bridge ahead of its enemy. After crossing the bridge they would burn it. This would ensure that the enemy had no way of reaching them, as the means of access had been eliminated. It’s also commonly used in reference to an action we take that precludes future options. We leave a job under severe conditions and do things we should not have done. We might then say, “When I left that job, I burned my bridge.” Meaning that you’ll never be able to work in that place again. We can also burn relational bridges. We have a falling out with a friend or colleague that’s so caustic, there’s no hope of restoring the relationship again.

Russell is pointing out that sometimes it can be difficult deciding the best course of action. Let me offer some practical application.

  • If you have unfinished business that should be dealt with. Maybe you need to forgive someone, offer an apology, clarify an action, make restitution for an offense, pay a debt, heal relational damage. This is a bridge you need to cross. The only way these matters can be resolved is if you’re willing to cross the bridge. The bridge is the work that must be done. It’s the process that must be faced and worked through. Otherwise you remain stuck and cannot go forward with a sense of closure. It will continue to hound you until you cross the bridge and settle it.
  • But maybe the matter is truly finished. It might be something you did in the past and you dealt with it in the past. You made restitution. You paid the debt. You offered forgiveness or an apology. You clarified. You did what you needed to do. You crossed the bridge. And yet, you can’t seem to move forward. You think about this thing far too much. You stress yourself out over it. You give it too much focus and too much energy. This is a bridge you need to burn. You need to burn it because there’s nothing more you can do about it. It’s done. By burning the bridge you confirm in your mind that it’s settled. So pull out a match, light the torch, set the bridge on fire, and watch it burn. Not with a spirit of vindictiveness. But with a spirit of closure. So you can move forward and not be further hindered by what you cannot change.

This reminds me of the Serenity Prayer of St. Francis. That God would grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can. These are the two bridges. The things we can change are the bridges we must cross. The things we cannot change are the bridges we must burn. Knowing which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn is the hard part. That’s why Francis ended the prayer with….and the wisdom to know the difference. May you always know which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn.

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Copyright © 2016 by Samuel Rodenhizer
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6 thoughts on ““The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.” (David Russell)

  1. There’s something to be gained from those wise folks born in 1953! It seems the most difficult part of the equation here is the caveat in the Serenity Prayer–the wisdom to know which is which. There have been times in my life where either I and/or my wife had to deal with a situation (vis à vis our 4th child) that no matter how we dealt with it and think the issue is solved, it reappears later on. Usually it’s in a way just different enough to make us think it’s something new. Perhaps it was a bridge that was already burned, but we’ve gone and rebuilt it–usually because we “shoulda, coulda, woulda” and we think the problem is from our shortcomings. It’s important to realize that some situations when we’ve done all to our best abilities and still things aren’t “fixed,” that some things are beyond our control and we need to rest in the assurance that God indeed is in control.

    I have enjoyed your posts–keep it up!


    1. Thanks, DDF. And you’re right on with your comment. Sometimes life is just a bit too complicated for us mortals. That’s why it’s comforting to know that we can go to sleep at night, while knowing that God will be awake. Thanks for your kind words about the posts.


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