“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.
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