Burning Bridges

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” ― Tom Stoppard

I found this quote on Google the other day and was arrested by it. I’m not sure exactly why, but it had the ring of truth to it, the ring of other favorite quotes that I’ve ended up absorbing into my vocabulary. So I copied it down, mulled it over, wrote it on my board to see what the kids would have to say, and floated it around a bit. Here are the fruits of a couple of days of rumination.

[Disclosure: I just now discovered that the quote is from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The following is based on not knowing that, and is not intended to be any sort of commentary or interpretation of that work. Any (mis)representations made here are entirely mine.]

It seems to me that this quote can be taken two ways. Optimistically, the mindset described here is a sort of carefree, guilt-free, worry-free existence, almost childlike, the very essence of carpe diem (there’s that phrase again…) “Burning our bridges” is a severing of connections to the past, a sort of “forgive and forget” (remember, we’re being optimistic here). No guilt follows us out of the past, no ghosts can sneak up behind us. Our rear is secure, so to speak. The closets have been purged of skeletons.

Furthermore, still speaking optimistically, we “cross our bridges when we come to them” ― that is, and not before we come to them. No worries. No dread of an unknown future. We are well-fed, clothed, and happy right now, and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. What an appealing mindset in a world concerned so much about the next plague, war, recession, CSI episode, or sports upset.

It’s good to be optimistic. Living life free from guilt is one of the greatest blessings of Christianity. “There is now no condemnation,” and all that. Our past sins do not condemn us; “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1). Likewise, living free from worry is a great blessing as well. Our heavenly Father provides all that we need and then some. “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray, not asking for a week’s supply all at once. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount remind us that “each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6). In Christ, we are free from worry over the future (crossing our bridges) and guilt over the past (burning them behind us), and free to live in the “day of salvation.”

I’m not sure this quote is really all that positive, however. I don’t think the chord it struck in me was blind optimism; rather, I’m afraid it was the opposite.

“We cross our bridges when we come to them.” We don’t plan ahead or give any thought to the future, until the future is today. We refuse to make connections between current actions (or inactions) and future repercussions. We live for the moment, eating, drinking, making merry, until the cold winter comes and we, like the grasshopper, are dependent on the goodwill of others. It’s fine to cross your bridges when you come to them, but what if we arrive at the toll booth with no money to make the crossing? There is a line between worry and preparedness; sometimes at the risk of doing the former, we fail to make even the smallest effort at the latter.

“And burn them behind us.” Living free from guilt is one thing. Refusing to learn from (or even admit to) your mistakes is completely another. A person who has burnt all his bridges has nothing to fall back on, no line of retreat, no foundation on which to build except the dangerously shifty subjectivity of his present circumstances. And we therefore “have nothing to show for our progress.”

“Once our eyes watered.” We vaguely remember that our actions caused us discomfort, but as long as that’s only a vague memory, we think we’re good–to–go. How many times must we cry the same tears before we learn our lessons?

Most haunting of all is the imagery built on the sense of smell. “A memory of the smell of smoke.” As we blindly grope our way thorough each day’s problems without the trustworthy wisdom of past lessons learned, a lingering olfactory memory silently suggests to us that our current problems are all our fault.

Are they? I think they are, and I think Tom Stoppard (or Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) are right in their diagnosis of our malady.

What do you think? Log on, post a comment, and join the discussion!


Dennis L Hitzeman said...

Too true. When do we stop and consider what the consequences of today might be for tomorrow?


chris j pluger said...

Iran, Iraq, Israel, Social Security...we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Wanna go get a beer?

Keba said...

Why is everyone picking on CSI?

I'll buy first round.

Anonymous said...

you burn the bridge because whats on the other side isnt worth walking to again...

Adam said...

I personally love this quote. I'm a graduating high school student, and made it my yearbook's "quote".
I personally take the first part about burning bridges as just a fact of life; we can't avoid it.
However, it is the second part, about not actually having anything to show for where you've been, that stuck a chord in me. It seems that I never realized that everyone is equal, and the only thing that defines who we are is where we have been, because all the bridges that lead to our past don't exist anymore, save for our memories, and the "smell of smoke"

Anonymous said...

yes i saw this quote on google the other day too and was, as you nicely put it, arrested by it.
it made me cry but i'm not sure if it was 'happy' or 'sad' tears. i personally try and delete stuff that have hurt me, but why should we burn the bridges we have crossed? why not keep them, so we can sometimes look back, and aknowledge what we managed to cross?
remembering only the smell of the smoke, and only 'assuming' that our eyes watered, is a conscious decision, a defense, bc aknowledging the pain for what it really was, could bring it all back again.

i love this quote. and this seems like a nice blog btw!

Miranda Eastham said...

I just wanna say that this has become my lifequote. It has so much truth to it and it astounds me. I just heard it on a tv show, "Criminal Minds". once i heard it i had to google it the best i could, and found this page. I appreciate your opinions and i agree from what i can tell. Way to put your opinion out there. Dually noted and appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I also heard it on Criminal Minds.

There's nothing optimist about it. It's serious, it's deep. I didn't perceive it optimist for a split of a second.

To me it means that in life one actually needs to cross the bridges as much as you'd plan or imagine it and once the experience is past, it's gone from the present. The moment burns consuming itself and all one has is the memory of it. No time machine for now. Interestingly enough our memories change in time and can become quite different than what was actually lived and felt at the time.

Anonymous said...

Burning bridges as I perceive is just another way of our own stuborness. We would rather protect our pride than learn from oue lessons and lose our resources in the process of getting nowhere.

Joy is the key said...

It makes me sad.

Meeeee76@google.com said...

I just heard this quote on criminal minds (they have the best quotes!!) I felt like the part about the bridges meant that we'll deal with things when that time comes (as opposed to worrying about "bridges" you may never have to cross) and that after crossing the "bridge" there's no need to look back bcoz you're done with that now (I guess symbolizing the past & past accomplishments).
I didn't think that the part about our eyes once watering was about crying out of sadness- I thought it might be about crying out of passion, and maybe even joy. Like when you're "all in" and something means a lot to you...and then it's over 😕