To Burn or Not To Burn?

Someone once told me that each time he embarks on a new period of his life – such as a new job, a new relationship, moving house, going to live in a new town, (and especially to a new country) – he would deliberately burn his bridges.  That’s the very phrase he used.  He explained he did it in order to move forward, not to be tempted to slip back, returning to soil that had been over-tilled when the promise of fertile land, needing his time and attention, lay ahead.  I was startled by his admission, surprised by his philosophy.  It ran counter to all discerning advice I had ever been given and firmly believed in: never, ever burn your bridges.  Burning bridges, I had been taught, was for the reckless, the fiery tempered, those who don’t know when to hold back.  My friend’s take on it was different: one of slipping quietly over the bridge, unnoticed, eyes pinned forward.  And so, with what amounted to a throwaway comment, and only a little explanation, I began to ponder.  I have come to understand his thinking and realise that throughout my life I’ve indulged (unconsciously) in a little bridge arson myself.

It’s such an emotive term; you rarely tell someone they have burnt their bridges by way of congratulating them.  Burning or destroying bridges is an act of war, one of the most tragic examples being the Mostar Bridge in Herzegovina.  It stood in the city of the same name for 427 years, until it was destroyed on 9 November 1993 in the Bosnian War, further dividing opposing ethnic groups within the city.  Obliterating bridges leaves people cut off from essential supplies, from neighbours, from families, and decelerates chances for reconciliation.  However, the metaphorical act of burning bridges doesn’t need to be war mongering and aggressive. It ought not to take the shape of telling your boss, on the way out the door on your last day, that s/he is an egotistical bully.  It should not be a home truths, wine-fuelled rant to your soon to be ex-friend about how they have never been on time to meet you, not once in 20 years.  My friend’s use of the phrase was a lot gentler.  His letting go of the past as a way of propelling himself out of his comfort zone seemed to me less about burning bridges and more about crossing new ones.  Bridges are pieces of essential infrastructure, and so too are all of our relationships; but sometimes we must re-model our social infrastructure, much as engineers decommission bridges over the years and build new ones.

Restraint, holding back, self-control, not lashing out; these are all courses of action (or inaction) that allow you to burn bridges without any smoke, flames, or structural damage.  After all, what is the integrity in keeping bridges intact in order to maintain relationships that are there for purely self-serving reasons?  If a friendship or connection is all about utility, when it’s all about the networkand how it might place you at a future advantage, and there is no other depth or meaning to it, then that doesn’t seem right to me.  And if my friend’s approach to bridge burning is about letting go, moving on and evolving, without an exchange of harsh and nasty words in the process, surely that is a good thing?  So maybe we change the metaphor to one that is active, rather than passive – making it less about burning bridges, and more about building new ones.

Each time I read this sonnet, I change my mind about what it means.  I have even begun to wonder if Shakespeare is toying with us, if it isn’t a tongue in cheek, veiled attack on the seemingly noble and virtuous.  Today, though, I’m going to read it as a lesson in holding back and self-control; rising above the petty act of burning bridges, or not burning bridges, but finding your own way in life in a manner that leaves no damage.

Sonnet 94, William Shakespeare

They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.


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