Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and family therapist, wrote a fable about a man who is offered and takes a rope. Once he has a good grip on the rope, the man who handed it to him jumps off of a bridge with the rope tied around his waist. The first man is caught in a dilemma. Can he let go of the rope and get on with his life, or should he put his life on hold and take responsibility for the welfare of the one now dangling off the bridge? (Our lead pastor Bob Kaylor preached on this story yesterday: read it – hear it).
Sometimes I find myself taking responsibility for the feelings of others. When one friend is upset with another friend, I sometimes take the responsibility to mediate. When my boss is frustrated, I want to take on some of his/her workload to make it easier. When my family is hurting I do all in my power to make everything better. When a church member complains that they don’t like something in the church, I sometimes feel the need to do something about it even when it is not about a ministry area for which I am responsible.
Sometimes that inclination is positive. It is good to be able to see a situation through someone else’s eyes. That is called empathy. More of us should reflect on how our actions affect our children or how the actions of others might be hurting members of the church, co-workers, or friends. Other times it crosses a line.
When we begin to feel personally responsible for the happiness and well-being of the people around us; when we suspend our lives to keep someone else from getting upset; when we allow others to dictate what we do, when we do it and how, that is no longer healthy. When that happens we need to think about letting go of the rope, or better yet not take it in the first place. That other person’s survival is not our responsibility. We can help. We should help. But we cannot do it for the other.
There is another parable I have heard used in sermons and motivational speeches that makes a similar point. The story is of a butterfly-watcher who had two chrysalises he was keeping an eye on, waiting for the butterflies to emerge. One morning he awoke to see that one of the butterflies had broken free of his/her chrysalis, but the other was still struggling break through. The man, wanting to be helpful, grabbed a knife, cut open the chrysalis, and freed the poor, struggling butterfly. The butterfly fell to the ground, unable to fly. Apparently, without the struggle of breaking from the chrysalis it had not developed strength enough in its wings for flight. The man’s “help” had inadvertently done damage to the insect.
Sometimes our “help” is no help at all. Parents whose children are not strong enough to face the outside world. Pastors of churches whose faith cannot withstand a struggle. Leaders who burn out because they micromanage every aspect of an organization or business because they don’t want others to feel the stress. Politicians who only give the people what they want rather than lead with integrity.
Sometimes we need to let people struggle their way out of their chrysalis. Sometimes that is more help then doing it for them. At first it may seem callous, but it’s not. Sometimes the best and most loving thing to do, for them and for us, is to let go of the rope.