The Bridges We Cross

Bridges.  They’re an iconic part of life and art.  The romantic aura of mist over the Golden Gate Bridge can us longing to see the world.  And the Brooklyn Bridge at night, against the backdrop of Manhattan’s lights, can inspire us to dream of standing out in some way from the crowds of New York. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved bridges.  Mostly.

My parents tell me that as a child I would often hide in the floor in the back seat of their car as we crossed bridges high or long.  For some reason, bridges have both inspired and unsettled me.  Even as an adult as I’d approach a particularly high bridge my palms would sometimes begin to sweat a bit.  My heart would speed up.  As I grew older these were, for the most part, imperceptible and benign symptoms associated with, I suppose, some sleeping fear of heights.  But one day that fear awoke like a screaming child.

I’ll get back to the screaming child in a bit.  For now, let’s talk some more about bridges.

When I think about it, I think I like what bridges represent.  They are creative works of engineering and construction genius. They span deep caverns and cross expansive gorges.  Whether driving or walking across a bridge the rhythm of tires or our footsteps sounds different when we cross them.  Today, as I move from the firm pavement of a regular paycheck and leave the banking industry behind, I can feel the changing ground beneath me as I ride up the front arch of a new adventure.  Just like crossing bridges, it’s both exciting and a bit spooky.

Whenever we leave what we perceive as the firm ground of familiarity, we can find ourselves anxious, wondering what the future holds.  With familiarity, we may have become comfortable.  We’re content enough with where we are, we tell ourselves.  Of course, we should be grateful for the things we have.  I know I am. But for some of us there comes a time in life when we simply have to accept the uncertainty, embrace the anxiety, and cross the bridge of life into an unknown future.  And it’s not just in our careers that we must cross those bridges.

We do it when we leave the protection, if we are fortunate enough to have had it, of our parents. We do it when we marry, have children, join the Army, go off to college, go through a divorce and when we do so many other things.  Sometimes, we do it because the pain in a place is is just too great.  Sometimes we do it when we perceive there’s a better place for us on the other side of the bridge.  Even when there are no lights, when fog or darkness enshrouds the bridge, we know the time has come to cross it.

Since today is the last day of my banking career, I suppose I’ve found myself thinking about bridges. The back tires of my car are leaving the comfort of a well known highway today.  The front tires are on the bridge.  But crossing the bridge doesn’t mean it’s the end of a journey.  It’s just part of it.  I don’t know what’s on the other side of it, but I do know I’m grateful that the road I’ve been on for so many years is still, in some strange way, the same road.  It’s just that the hum of the tires will sound different.  Maybe, I will get a flat.  Or I’ll have car trouble on top of the bridge. Maybe, I will run out of gas crossing it. And maybe there will be a screaming child I have to quiet.

About fifteen years ago, I was crossing the Tennessee River driving on Interstate 65, just south of Huntsville, Alabama.  The southbound traffic was bad.   I was tired. And life, for a lot of reasons, was full of an inordinate amount of stress.  To make things worse, I needed glasses but didn’t know it at the time. So there, right on top of that bridge, a bridge I had driven across hundreds of times, my palms began sweating profusely. My heart began throbbing in my chest.  I felt short of breath.  So, in the midst of a panic attack, I pulled the big SUV I was driving onto a just wide enough shoulder at the peak of the bridge to let my then wife drive.  She didn’t understand what was happening.  Neither did my daughter sitting in the back seat. For that matter, I didn’t really get it either.  Somehow, in with cars and trucks speeding past me, I made it to the passenger’s seat. I leaned seat as close to horizontal as I could, closed my eyes, and tried to regain my composure.

For a long time after that day, I had terrible anxiety related to crossing bridges.  For a while, I chose alternate routes, asked others to drive or simply chose not to travel to certain places.  But that’s no way to live.  With time, a little help from my doctor, meditation and practice, I’m happy to say I no longer fear crossing bridges. Oh sure, sometimes “what if it happens again” thought will cross my mind.  But I just return to the moment and remind myself everything is fine and that anxiety is about what might happen, rather than where I am at that moment. And I remind myself that bridges are meant for crossing to see what adventures are waiting for me on the other side.