Building Bridges

Since I’m from Missouri and went to college in Texas, I’ve become accustomed to long solo road trips. I wanted to have my car over holiday and summer breaks, so I’d pack up the Tacoma and head 10 hours north a couple times a year. When I moved to Austin after graduation, I begrudgingly tacked on a couple more hours to the journey. If you can drive for 10 hours straight, what’s 12 right? 

Eventually my parents started spending more time at our house in South Carolina. Provided this would make the road trip distance home a whopping 1,00 miles and 15 hours from my new apartment in Houston, any sane person would buy a flight. But I recently adopted a Great Pyrenees, which means sanity took a backseat to my overwhelming need to be with this dog at all times. I’m not sure whose separation anxiety is worse. 

Anyway, it’s a couple weeks until Christmas amid the global pandemic of 2020 and I want to see my family. So completing this drive in one day seems like the only viable option. If you can drive for 12 hours straight, what’s 15 right?

I throw my suitcase in the truck bed and my polar bear in the backseat and hit the road. The first few and last few hours of the drive are in darkness. The route takes us along the southern coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama then through Georgia and finally to the finish line in South Carolina. This leaves plenty of time behind the wheel to get lost in thought between various podcast episodes. 

It’s still early in the trip, and I’m crossing the Horace Wilkinson Bridge into Baton Rouge as the orange light from the rising sun dances off the Mississippi River. It’s the tallest bridge in Louisiana and rises at what feels like a 45 degree angle. I pull down the visor to protect my eyes from the blinding light and grip the wheel.

I’ve had this one recurring dream for the last decade where I’m driving up a steep bridge over a body of water. The bridge is getting steeper and steeper until I’m driving almost vertically into the sky. I press down on the accelerator all the way, but it’s no match for this 90 degree angle. The car starts moving backward. I look behind me and the road has disappeared. There’s only water beneath me. The car continues stalling back, back, back until both the car and me inside it are free falling. That’s usually when I wake up. Heart pounding, fast breathing. 

So, it’s hard to ignore the real sight before me is eerily similar to this dream. But the sunrise is so beautiful that I forget to be afraid. And the clouds I’m driving toward are so peaceful that I forget to hold my breath. And the road beneath my tires is so sturdy that I forget to fear a free fall. And the river I’m crossing–the second-longest in North America and only one that would take me straight home to St. Louis–is so familiar that I forget to worry. And something dawns on me as clear as the dawn in my rearview mirrors: beauty only resides on the other side of fear. 

The rivers that divide us can be crossed only if we have the courage to build the bridge. We must travel the distance if we want to reach people, even if the journey is long and tiresome. But if we allow fear to impede us from crossing bridges into new territory, we’ll never have the life we were designed to live. A life of connection, celebration of differences, and recognition of equal humanity. Bridges are the ultimate connectors.

Too often we grow comfortable and complacent on our side of the river banks. We throw stones to the other side trying to get them to understand ours. Stones covered in facts or data, stones loaded with blame and name-calling, stones stained with self-righteousness. We don’t understand how the other side can’t understand ours and rush to join us.

Instead of throwing stones, why aren’t we building more bridges? Yes, it takes more effort and time and energy. But the rewards waiting on the other side of fear are too great to ignore. It doesn’t have to be to communities across the country. It can be a small bridge to the other side of town. Or the neighbor in our backyard. Or the person in our household we feel cut off from by an ocean’s worth distance. 

The first step in laying the foundation? Telling honest stories.

You’re more likely to tune me out if I start rattling off statistics about how many people worldwide suffer from anxiety. But if I tell you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, the conviction that you’re going to die, you’re probably more compelled to listen. Maybe you can even relate. I stop becoming a statistic and start becoming a person. You’re more likely to hear me out if I tell you what it’s like loving someone addicted to alcohol than if I list off the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

The stone is the data used to persuade. The bridge is the story used to connect.

I’m not suggesting bridges–the way we connect to others–can’t also be made of research and scientific data. Plenty of them are. But it’s probably because the data are being used to tell a story, not win an argument. So the next time you find yourself sinking deeper into the mud on your side of the water, searching for stones, look for the nearest bridge instead. Look for connection. The view might just be so beautiful you’ll forget to be afraid.