Would you let go of the rope?

March 13, 2008

Recently I came across this fable by Rabbi Edwin Friedman in Peter Scazzero’s book “The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives.” It was in a chapter called “Receiving the gift of limits.” What interested me was the way the story completely caught me in it, as I fell for every twist and turn. Here is the story:

Rabbi Edwin Friedman tells the story of a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life. After trying many things, succeeding at some and failing at others, he finally decided what he wanted.

One day the opportunity came for him to experience exactly the way of living that he had dreamed about. But the opportunity would be available only for a short time. It would not wait, and it would not come again.

Eager to take advantage of this open pathway, the man started on his journey. With each step, he moved faster and faster. Each time he thought about his goal, his heart beat quicker; and with each vision of what lay ahead, he found renewed vigor.

As he hurried along, he came to a bridge that crossed through the middle of a town. The bridge spanned high above a dangerous river.

After starting across the bridge, he noticed someone coming the opposite direction. The stranger seemed to be coming toward him to greet him. A the stranger grew closer, the man could discern that they didn’t know each other, but yet they looked amazingly similar. They were even dressed alike. The only difference was that the stranger had a rope wrapped many times around his waist. If stretched out, the rope would reach a length of perhaps thirty feet.

The stranger began to unwrap the rope as he walked. Just as the two men were about to meet, the stranger said, “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end of the rope for me?”
The man agreed without a thought, reached out, and took it.

“Thank you,” said the stranger. He then added, “Two hands now, and remember, hold tight.” At that point, the stranger jumped off the bridge.

The man on the bridge abruptly felt a strong pull from the now-extended rope. He automatically held tight and was almost dragged over the side of the bridge.

“What are you trying to do?” he shouted to the stranger below.

“Just hold tight,” said the stranger.

This is ridiculous, the man thought. He began trying to haul the other man in. Yet it was just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.

Again he yelled over the edge, “Why did you do this?”

“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.

“I did not ask for it,” the man said.

“If you let go, I am lost,” repeated the stranger.

The man began to look around for help. No one was within sight.

He began to think about his predicament. Here he was eagerly pursuing a unique opportunity, and now he was being sidetracked for who knows how long.

Maybe I can tie the rope somewhere, he thought. He examined the bridge carefully, but there was no way to get rid of his new found burden.

So he again yelled over the edge, “What do you want?”

“Just your help,” came the answer.

“How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope while I find someone else who could help you.”

“Just keep hanging on,” replied the dangling man. “That will be enough.”

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 who you have done? What possible purpose could you have in mind?”

“Just remember,” said the other, “my life is in your hands.”

Now the man was perplexed. He reasoned within himself, If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other man die. If I stay, I risk losing my momentum toward my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt me forever.

As time went by, still no one came. The man became keenly aware that it was almost too late to resume his journey. If he didn’t leave immediately, he wouldn’t arrive in time.

Finally, he devised a plan. “Listen,” he explained to the man hanging below, “I think I know how to save you.” He mapped out the idea. The stranger could climb back up by wrapping the rope around him. Loop by loop, the rope would become shorter.

But the dangling man had no interest in the idea.

“I don’t think I can hang on much longer,” warned the man on the bridge.

“You must try,” appealed the stranger. “If you fail, I die.”

Suddenly a new idea struck the man on the bridge. It was different and even alien to his normal way of thinking. “I want you to listen carefully,” he said, “because I mean what I am about to say.”

The dangling man indicated that he was listening.

“I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; I hereby give back the position of choice for your own life 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 become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug some from here.”
He unwound the rope from around his waist and braced himself to be a counterweight. He was ready to help as soon as the dangling man began to act.

“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.”

After a long pause, the man on the bridge uttered slowly, “I accept your choice.” In voicing those words, he freed his hands and continued his journey over the bridge.

I was completely caught off guard by the end of the story. It is hard for me to imagine letting the rope go. It’s so hard to believe that letting the rope go was right. As I read the story, I kept thinking that the parable would catch me for not caring enough for the man who was dangling off the bridge.

“What will the moral of the story be?”, I wondered as I read. I worked out some pretty interesting ones . . . but that the moral was that the rope must be let go – it staggered me. I realized how I’d been trapped by the story . . . I saw the correspondence of the fable to chillingly similar events in my life. This story is about me in so many ways.

I have lived most of my life willingly accepting other people’s “ropes” and then struggling to hold on because I can’t let go because of guilt. How could I? I am a Christian. I am a pastor. Wouldn’t Jesus pull them up? Unfortunately, this has led to exhaustion, anxiety, depression, resentfulness and even bitterness at times.

What I am learning is that I’m not here to fix all the world’s problems – even though some days I still think I can. God has given me limits and I need to embrace them and not feel guilty in the process. I can’t do it all and I can’t allow other people’s expectations of me to guilt me into thinking that I can.

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this fable and the gift of limits. Would you let go of the rope?

Kevin Martineau

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I am the Pastor at Port Hardy Baptist Church on Northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I am married to my best friend and I have three beautiful daughters.

29 responses to Would you let go of the rope?

  1. Seriously Kevin! This is a wicked story, in both senses of the word! Limits, margins, boundaries, whatever you call them, it is hard to have them when you are a problem solver, peacemaker, “responsible”, nurturing person. I also was extremely unnerved when I read this story, but it gives fresh perspective on how to help. I think my first reaction was “How unbelievable, he put his own life before someone else!” My second reaction was “I wish I could do that sometimes!” My third was pounding on the table and and realizing I am not the answer to all the world’s problems. I also realized that I have been the person at both ends of the rope and frustration and anxiety happen at both ends, no matter the outcome.
    Anyways, spring break seems the time for me to be contemplative. This is the first time I have spent anytime on your blog, and I will hopefully be able to continue, now that my time will be freed up from taking on all of the world’s problems!

  2. Hi Melissa! Thanks for commenting. This story continues to be on my thoughts day by day as I am SLOWLY learning that I can’t fix all the worlds problems.

    I hope that you are having an enjoyable Spring Break! When you get back we will have to arrange a game of “Setters”. It has been a while!

  3. My counselor just told me this story yesterday and then handed me the book. It is an impossible position to be in, holding the rope; one that we don’t even dare to describe I think. And it perfectly points out what it means to trust…trust in Christ that He is in control of all things…if we keep holding on then we don’t believe that, then it doesn’t matter what we say with our lips, our life says the opposite…it says we believe we are in control. Thanks for typing out this story, I want to share it with someone else and you’ve saved me the effort. God Bless!

  4. I am one of the people with which “MommyBrain” wanted to share this story. It’s a familiar place for me, holding the rope. I was raised in a family that I was responsible for making everything okay with everyone one.. at a very young age I was handed the end of that rope. And funny how I’m in a marriage that is patterned the same way and here I am stuck holding the rope. I’m learning how to let go without the guilt, and learning that it is out of love that we need to let go. What a great story! It must be hard as a pastor to put up those boundaries because of other people’s expectations of you! God bless you!

    • Obviously, this is a universal issue. Like Carol, I grew up in a family and was given ropes to manage and care for and have taken on ropes over the years that aren’t mine. I learned to pull myself up to suck it up and deal. I guess a lot of us had parents who did the same thing.

      Be responsible. This is what responsible people do. I’ve been in therapy for a year and I’ve got a big rope I fear letting go of the most. Like Carol, it’s my marriage. He’s a good man. We’re just not good together. He had no idea of the ropes I’ve managed over the years and through marriage counseling, he is realizing how much I’ve done without his knowledge and why I’m resentful now. I was such a lovely door mat. Eighteen years of it. He thought we were wonderful. I was miserable.

      Letting go. My therapist and I have spoken about the rope a lot. I’ve learned self-compassion. I still fuse with ideas, less than before. Learning to quit something significant, like my marriage, and live with my family probably calling a loser and a quitter. I don’t have to hold their ropes. I can choose to. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will. Their choice.

      Thanks for sharing this parable, Kevin.

  5. Thank-you mommy brain and carol for your comments! Setting boundaries is difficult (especially as a pastor) BUT I am slowly learning to do this. The more I do it the easier it becomes. I am beginning to experience more and more the blessing of this in my life.

  6. As a pastor I would be interested in your thoughts. I have been married for 25 years and about 10 years ago my husband drifted away from the Lord and basically became addicted to spending money. No unfaithfulness, pornography, alcohol, physical abuse. But he kept secrets from me, became isolated and depressed. I begged him for years to get help and he would not.Meantime we drifted into debt. He is a mail worker so I never saw the bills and he hid them from me. We tried several times for me to handle all money, but he would change his mind after about three weeks of it. He has bought and sold about 20 cars during this time(most of those in the last 3 year).He finally became so depressed that he went and got meds, but the spending and secrets and isolation continued. His doctor finally told him he had to see a psychiatrist, that he wouldn’t write him any more rxs (or write him excuses from work). He went to see a Christian psychiatrist who told him basically that there was an obedience problem, that God could help him with this but that he had to make the decision to get the help. He would not commit. and would not go back. He went back to same old thing. When the debt reached 77,000 I got a legal separation to protect myself and my daughter. I have taken nothing but grief over this for his family because of my marriage vows. Is a separation only if there is physical abuse? And if God can protect us in this, how come He doesn’t protect in physical abuse as well? Sorry this is so wordy

  7. Thanks for sharing your story! My heart is filled with compassion for you. The best advice that I can give you is to get professional help/counsel where you are. There are no easy answers to your situation. You need someone to walk alongside you through this. I pray God’s blessing upon you and your situation!

  8. I thought for sure that the guy was holding him self up, and that in some way the man would aspire to bring the dangling man up with some inner ambition.
    The ending left me boggled…
    Shouldn’t the moral be to never give up? Or You’re life is in the palm of your own hands?
    The story never mentioned that the man was held back from achieving his goals in the first place because he was continuously helping others, or that it caused his misery or guilt. It told us that he simply succeeded in some goals and failed in others, as is the way of life. Which come to reason the saying that nobody’s perfect. Right? If there was anything holding this man back wouldn’t it not be himself if anything else but the natural human flaws?

    If the dangling man was in fact a symbol of the man himself, the story cold have ended in two reasonable ways:
    The man let the dangling man plunge and die in to the water, later feeling the guilt of what would still be considered murder. In this case the man wouldn’t have learned the lesson to persevere and would continue his unsure path now filled with gilt.
    Alternate ending: the man perseveres to bring the man up, using whatever persuasion, compromise, or threats necessary. He brings the man up and they both live another day. The man learns perseverance is a virtue, and by that is granted even more opportunities in life than the one he was originally journeying for.

    How can it be said that this guy did the right thing?
    Because he learned the virtue of selfishness ? But how can that be a lesson learned? We’re already born with selfish instinct: survival of the fittest.

    • How in the world did you come up with that conclusion?

      The point of the story was that this “other” person had placed his life in his hands, with no option other then to sit still and hold him, or be left with the guilt of his giving up, resulting in the other ones life. There was no option to help the man live. The moral of this story is that you CAN’T help everyone no matter how much you want too. The options are to commit your life to trying to help them and loose yourself, or let them be responsible for their own choices and the consequences of those choices. The man on the end of the rope decided to end his life, but decided that instead of dying with the guilt of taking his own life, he would place them blame on a stranger. This “other” people was not looking for help, they where looking to place the blame of their choice to end their life on another.

      If someone reaches out for you to help, and you are able, then by all means help them to the best of your ability. But if another person does not want your help, and just seeks to pull you or anyone else down with them on the way down, try and minimize the collateral damage as much as possible. Save yourself, and anyone else caught up in the mess.

  9. Michelle Brown May 25, 2009 at 4:25 am

    This story reminded me of my own personal struggles with my family where I had to release them to the Lord, and leave them free to make their own decisions regarding their lives.

    The man who jumped abdicated his responsibility for his own life. The man holding the rope put that responsibility back on him, giving him the opportunity to choose life or death. If he hadn’t, they both would have died because the other man wasn’t willing to do his part in saving his own life.

    Scripture says “choose this day…” We don’t get to choose for another person. We can help them to the best of our ability, but ultimately they have to choose for themselves.

  10. Ok, I have been the man on the end of the rope somewhat. I do often feel like it is the responsibility of the church to help me up although I dont feel like I said “here hold this” while I jumped. It was more like I was pushed off by the circumstances of my pastor going to jail, my child getting molested, being stole from, my daughter dying, going to jail myself, my husband going to Iraq and then losing a baby. Enough to make anyone jump but I never have. All of this happened when I had no church family (ours split up when my pastor went to jail). Now I find myself trying to fit back in church but when people see my pain they RUN!

    In this story the man at the end of the rope is obviously not that interested in finding his way up. In my story the person at the end of the rope would like to make their way up but cant find anyone to hold the rope long enough. :-(

  11. Thank you for posting this wonderful story. The Lord has been directing me to posts and scriptures that speak directly to my current struggles recently and yours is the latest.

    I recently had to let go of the rope of marriage for the sake of my own mental health. While this was a difficult decision I knew that it had to be done. Since the separation I have been attacked by Satan through people who I thought were my friends, through my own thoughts, and, sadly, through my future ex-wife. I found that I was still holding the end of a rope as her and her friends attempted to drag me down to the darkest depths I have ever been to.

    By the grace of God I have come to realize that there are so many more important things in life and that He still has a great plan for me. Even when fellow Christians are coming up against you and the truth you must be willing to just let go. I want to defend myself and I want to help them out of their deception but I realize that it’s not my job…it’s God’s. Thank you again for your post.

  12. Michelle Brown: Very well said. Thanks for sharing!

    Anonymous and Chris: Wow! Thank you for sharing your heart’s with us. You both have experienced a LOT of pain. It is very sad that as the church we choose to shoot our wounded sometimes. This is so wrong! The church is supposed to be a “safe” place where hurting people can come and be helped in the healing process. May God wrap His arms of comfort and encouragement around you today!

  13. I am typically suspicious when people try to throw me ropes. There is much truth in this fable and a lot of wisdom. People make choices and we don't necessarily owe it to them to keep them alive, particularly when they try to manipulate us through guilt. On a human level, Jesus made his disciples own the responsibility for their actions. On a divine level, he holds the rope for us all!

    I would like to use the sketch in a course manual I'm writing. Would this be possible? jpl

  14. Great points Jon! Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

    Are you talking about the picture or the story? Neither are original to me. I found the image on google and the story in Peter Scazzero's book "The Emotionally Healthy Church."
    My recent post What kind of love does God have for us

  15. Hi Kevin! I wrote about the fable in my blog. Thank you so much for posting this. It's what I need today. I am just amaze on how God can talk to His people in so many ways. God bless!
    http://lightedpen.blogspot.com/
    My recent post The Bridge

  16. It is definitely a powerful story! Thanks for the link on your blog back here. I appreciate it! :)
    My recent post What goes around doesnt always come around

  17. Kevin

    WOW!! Now that’s a story. We do have to make some very tough choices in life sometimes. I have to say that some people do hold you back. They have to be willing to make an effort towards their own well being. I have let go of a few people and situations that have held me back. Sometimes it’s the best for both sides. Who knows when he let go of the rope it might have been the best thing for other man too!! The men on the other end may have had that wake up call he needed.

    Have a Great Day
    Chester

  18. I would let go of the rope. We all have the power of choice, and somewhere between what happens to us and our response to it is our choice…for all of us…

  19. The choices are to let the man fall, or to fall with him. Friedman’s story puts it in such stark terms, and sometimes in life it is like that. But, most often, it simply means we free ourselves from the unsolvable (sp?) drama of another’s life, that could/would become solvable, or at least manageable, if they would but assume some responsibility. That decision must be made by those who are in relationships with addicts. Do they enable, or let go of the rope? After sufficient prompting and urging responsibility, the choice becomes clearer. Great story.

    • You are right Warren. The real key is for the person holding onto the rope to assume their responsibility for the situation that they are in and to start doing something about it.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  20. Kevin – Thanks for posting this. So true…

  21. In an appendix to the book, Friedman adds this bit to the story:

    It is reported that after the dangling man hit the water, he said, “I guess you win some and you lose some.” Then he swam to shore, got another rope, and went back to wait for the next passer-by.