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Service and Sacrifice in Dromgoole's "Bridge Builder"
The Bridge Builder
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”
In a recent article, I considered some examples of self-centeredness that were common and influential in our modern world. In one sense, of course, there is nothing new about selfishness. It is one of the original and most basic temptations of mankind. When a creature has a self, there is immediately the temptation to put the self first, before others, and even before God.
Yet while this has always been a temptation of man, in past ages, we could recognize selfishness as a sin, even if we sometimes fell prey to it: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Our modern age, though, sometimes seems to celebrate selfishness. Modern slogans about looking out for number one, being true to oneself, doing whatever makes one happy: all seem to celebrate a life lived with oneself at the center. Such self-centeredness makes love impossible. For love looks outward to others, instead of looking in at oneself.
In contrast to such instances of self-centeredness, the poem “The Bridge Builder” by William Dromgoogle speaks of our duty to others. In the gray evening, an old man comes to a chasm, with a swollen stream running under it. He has no fear of chasm or stream and crosses without fear or difficulty. But then he did something peculiar. After crossing the stream, he immediately turned around and, rather than going on his way, he took the time to build a bridge across that stream.
A fellow-traveler saw him do this and was confused. Why waste time and strength after he had already crossed safely? The old man’s answer is deeply moving. He is not the only one who must cross the stream. A little after him follows another traveler, a young man. And the old man fears that “this chasm which has been naught to me/ to that fair-hued youth a pitfall may be.” He is building the bridge not for himself, but for that young man.
The poem and message are delightful, speaking of one generation’s duty to the next and an example of love and service to others. We are like the old man in the poem, and must do good for others, even though we ourselves derive no benefit from it. We must do good that we ourselves will not live to see. For we ourselves have benefited from the deeds done by others, the good of which they may not have lived to see.
J.R.R. Tolkien has Gandalf speak of this duty in The Return of the King. He explains the heroes’ duty to do what they could against the evil Sauron, even if it meant walking into a trap that might mean certain doom for themselves. But they had to do so nonetheless:
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
As it turned out, the Captains of the West in Tolkein’s story came through the trap and returned home. But, still, they were all willing to give up themselves for the good of future generations that they themselves would never see. Frodo Baggins explains the same to a tearful Sam Gamgee: that he himself would never benefit from his perils and sacrifices. Sam struggles to understand, but Frodo explains:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
This is the same spirit of William Dromgoole’s poem: the love for others, the duty to future generations, and the willingness to self-sacrifice. We have the same duty: to labor patiently as parents, teachers, faithful Catholics, whatever our station and position, for the good of those who will come after us.