Many years ago I read an ad (viewable here) for CompuServe, a company providing online services via dialup from personal computers. The year was 1982. It would be yet another year before I had my first personal computer; to me, the ad was intimidating. Who were these people who sent messages called “email” to people in other states or countries? What world-changing philosophies did they share? Surely, I would not be qualified to participate in these awesome forums of debate or to discuss intricacies of financial markets. And the thought of connecting my computer with others across the world was a bit frightening, as I had no idea how this was done or what I might write to persons unknown. That was 1982; a new world was there but I wasn’t ready to cross that bridge.
It would be 1994, twelve years later, before I made the decision to explore this wider universe. The cost for my CompuServe account was $10 per month for 10 hours’ use, accessed with a 300 baud modem. Speed was nonexistent, features were few by present standards, but I had arrived across that bridge into a bigger world. Today, people laugh and make disparaging remarks of those early Internet bridges (CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, AOL and others), but they fail to see them for what they were: bridges to a bigger world. It was through those services that the Internet began to grow and, although those services are now gone, they left a rich legacy. They were the necessary bridge that brought a world forward.
This story is not unusual. The bridges in our lives are often not understood; they take us from one platform of life to a bigger one, one that we did not yet grasp. From my childhood, I remember the Dick and Jane book series. They may no longer be in use and they have been criticized by some for not teaching us properly, but they served a bridge to reading and building vocabulary for many generations. Finding fault with that book series (or with those early online services) overlooks the bridges they were. Bridges move us to new worlds; faulting their construction is missing their purpose.
In reviewing the milestones of our lives, there were always bridges and there always will be, some we know of, some we don’t. Kindergarten was my first bridge; it had the three traits of all life’s bridges: fear, unknown outcome, risk. Had I not gone, I would have faced the bigger bridge of first grade the following year. Mom made the right decision for me by avoiding that risk. That may have been the last bridge I crossed unwillingly. Becoming a Cub Scout in fourth grade didn’t seem like a bridge; it seemed just a way to wear a uniform and earn badges, but I was so wrong. Instead, it was a bridge to sharing joint objectives with others and beginning to discover how my interests and desires meshed with those of others.
Bridges can also bring a sense of failure, but it is never the bridge, it is always us. My first major failure in crossing a bridge was my first enrollment in college. I began crossing that bridge without understanding its length, the steep grade or the commitment required to reach the other side. Although I failed in that attempt, I realized then that, although I had been generally a “straight A student” in high school, there was more to success in college than having intelligence. I was lost, having no direction. There were now choices facing me: go home and get a job, continue rudderless at college, or join the military. I chose the military and, in crossing that bridge I knew I was facing fear and unknown outcome, but the risk was behind me. My life would, forevermore, be mine to decide; a sense of personal power filled me. That bridge to college was crossed years later, but it was when it served my purposes and the subjects studied were completely different from that first attempt. Looking back, I learned that, even when we fail at a bridge crossing, we succeed in other ways.
Bridges form our history, the ones crossed and the ones avoided. With each, there was always fear, unknown outcome, and risk. Remember that person you wanted to meet in junior high, but you were too modest to speak? That may have become a life-long friendship, a teenage romance, or a life-long love; instead, it remains a bridge not crossed. Remember when you moved to a new city, leaving your friends behind? You may have done so for a new job or school, but what you discovered was that the experience changed you as well. Each bridge we cross expands our view and educates us more on choices taken and not taken. We learn about ourselves with each bridge and, as with all bridges, we must first cross before we can assess the outcome of the decision. And the bridge not crossed? We will never know its possibilities. Is there a bridge standing on your horizon? Maybe it’s time to ask, “Why am I not crossing it?”