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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Ellis

Girders and Rivets: Some Thoughts on Bridge Building

"Nothing happens unless first we dream."
—Carl Sandburg

Things have been hot lately. This time I’m not talking about Texas weather. We are living in a divided and divisive time. Few times in history has our country been this polarized since the Civil War.

Storytelling is an artform. That means all of us who tell are artists, whether we realize it or not. This is a time for us to be thinking about the role of the artist in the community. Certainly the storyteller has many roles. (To entertain, to inspire, to educate, to name only a few. I hope each of us will spend time thinking seriously about our roles.) I believe one of the primary roles of the storyteller is to bring the community together.

Actually, we have talked a lot about this in the past. We often speak about how storytelling builds bridges between people. It does not seem to me, though, that we have thought very deeply about what building bridges really means.

"With stories, you can build walls to separate people or build bridges to unite them! Do the second thing in the name of ethics and honor, for the glory of love and goodness"
—Mehmet Murat Ildan

During the past few years we have watched as stories were used in many different ways. Often they were used to divide us rather than to bring us together. Many of them became tools for separating people into “us” and “the enemy”. The problem is we live in the same country, in the same communities. We are all in this together now. There is no place for thinking of fellow community members as “the enemy”, even if their story is widely different from our own.

“Wedge issues” do what wedges have always done: split things apart. Now is the time to search for a common narrative. And once found, to share it.

"A bridge has no allegiance to either side."
—Les Coleman

For a bridge to stand, it must have a footing. To create that footing perhaps what is needed now is listening. Compassionate listening to the stories of those different from ourselves can go a long way toward building a foundation of understanding. We may never agree. That is okay. Perhaps that isn’t the point. Instead, understanding can lead us to respect. That is a footing worth building on.

To accomplish building bridges it may be necessary for many of us to “mellow the rawness of our personal opinions” (--A.E. Housman) in search of that which speaks to our common humanity.

Not many people love a good soapbox more than I do. But I recognize:

"You can't build a bridge out of soapboxes."
—Elizabeth Ellis

Preaching doesn’t work. No matter how sure we are that we have “the truth”, there are lots of insightful old tales to remind us that each of us has only a limited view of it. The Hindu tell the story of the blind men and the elephant. The one feeling the leg says an elephant is like a tree. The one with the tail is equally convinced that an elephant is like a rope. The man touching the ear is certain an elephant is like a large leaf. The one at the trunk believes an elephant to be a snake. Each is convinced that he alone knows the truth.

The Roman author Plutarch gives us a version of an ancient Egyptian myth where Osiris (the Truth) is dismembered by Typhon (Set) and his parts are scattered to the four winds. Each of us must search for any piece of Osiris and if we find one, cherish it but always continue the search for the other missing pieces. There is much wisdom in these old tales.

There are lots of different kinds of bridges. The ones I am most familiar with are made of girders. I have spent some time lately thinking about what girders I will be using for my own bridge building. I am sure each of us will make different choices, but I will share some of mine with you.

I will search my repertoire for tales that divide us and drop them.
I will remember that none of us have all the Truth.
I will search for stories that emphasize our common humanity.
I will learn tales that celebrate our differences rather than condemn them.
I will shape and share stories of people I might previously thought of as “the enemy”.

I have heard it said many times that if you want to learn something, teach it. It seems to me that we could easily substitute the word “tell” for the word “teach”.

I look forward to hearing what girders you will choose for your own work.

In the Jewish tradition there is the concept of Tikkun Olam. As I understand it, it means that our function is to mend the tear in the fabric of the Universe. To me there could be no better description of

the power of story than that. No matter how many girders we have, they must be held together by something. Screws and rivets are the usual choices. Our choices will be individual stories we choose to tell. Like screws and rivets, stories can be divided into two types: those that give light, and those that give heat. Those that give light are probably going to be more readily accepted by our listeners. However, there are those tales that, like rivets, require heat. They may be harder to tell, but, like rivets, they are likely to make a stronger and more lasting connection.

“That which would give light must endure burning.”
—Victor Frankel

That may be my favorite quote, ever. It is written on a piece of paper that is taped up over my desk so that I can look at it every day. It rests beside another that says, “Don’t give them what they want. Give them something better.” I have taken them down and rewritten them on new paper in a different color of ink. I did so because I wanted to make sure that I do not take them for granted, that I continue to think about what they mean each and every day.

There is much work to do. Our authentic voices are needed now more than ever. Take a little time to think about bridge building. I wish you Joy in the work.

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
—Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21 the Talmud

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