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Build Your Own Bridge

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 85 - February 2003

On a recent visit to China, cruising down the great Yang Tze river I told our shipboard guide how much I admired the many bridges we were passing. They were slim, elegant, boldly arching over the mighty river or its tributaries. I was delighted to see that civil engineering could produce such beautiful structures. "Yes, they are admirable", said the guide, clearly pleased by my comment, "but bridge building is pretty new for us". And then the full story came out. Around 1950, when Chairman Mao launched his gigantic project to drag China into the 20th century, foreign experts had to be recruited to build much-needed modern bridges in key places. Prominent among them were Russian engineers; Chinese-Soviet friendship was in full bloom.

But then the friendship faded. The Russians departed in a huff, leaving – among other things – the all-important Yang Tze bridge at Nanjing unfinished. Disaster. But somehow or other the Chinese eventually worked out how to do the job themselves, and with vast effort and ingenuity they managed to complete the unfinished gigantic two-tier bridge in 1968. After that triumph there was no stopping them; they now knew how to build bridges.

Incongruous though it may seem, the great Chinese achievement made me think of something infinitely smaller: the first time a client of mine succeeded in cooking a good soup. Until that day she'd been totally unable to prepare any food, however simple, without making a mess of it. She would burn it, get the ingredients wrong, forget to add water or pour in double the required amount – the outcome was always a shambles. This went on as long as she was sharing a house with her mother, a charming woman who happened to be a 'Cordon Bleu' cook, a regular wizard in the kitchen. She would have liked her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but her very skills acted as a deterrent; so did her fond but impatient reaction every time her daughter tried to do something in the kitchen – "No, not like that, let me do it, darling!"

But one day the Cordon Bleu mother moved to the country, hoping that her daughter would neither starve to death nor poison herself with inferior takeaways. She did neither. After a few weeks of slight confusion and anxiety she bought a cookery book for beginners.

And began to cook. The great benevolent yet oppressive shadow of her mother had gone, setting her free. Her first really tasty leek and potato soup – all her own work – convinced her that she had broken the spell and could, in future, cook anything she wanted, hold her own, be creative with a wooden spoon. There were other aspects too of her new-found independence from her much-loved but overwhelming mother, which cropped up in our therapeutic work, but they don't belong here.

So this is what links the Chinese bridge and the British soup in their vastly different dimensions: the discovery of one's own potential and power, after the departure of a huge expert presence. Even if that presence is helpful and supportive, it leaves no room – and no need – for any individual effort or initiative from those who depend on it. Granted, it's reassuring to know that all the big tasks and hard jobs are being carried out by someone else – who then (since there are no free lunches) will also rule over us and set limits to what we are allowed to do, but… haven't we been there before, in the remote reaches of our childhood, and is that where we want to be now?

What I am talking about is the need to establish our autonomy and make sure that we are marching to our own drumbeat, not someone else's, whether it's a parent, teacher, partner, ideal leader or anyone else we can look up to. Being inspired by some outstanding human being is one thing, being discouraged and held back is another. The most extreme examples of the latter are the children of truly outstanding great men, geniuses like Napoleon or Goethe and a few others, who never amounted to much and didn't even live long.

Fortunately geniuses are rare, and less towering examples are easier to escape. As the American psychologist Lawrence LeShan puts it, the important thing is to sing our own song, even if it's out of tune.[1]

Sometimes what stops us from stepping out on our own path is fear of success, which, oddly enough, can be worse than fear of failure. The latter is normal and understandable: few of us like to make a fool of ourselves. But fear of success is another matter. The psychologist Abraham Maslow, founding father of Transpersonal Psychology, believed that people often block their most sublime qualities and run away from their own greatness, because to own up to it would be challenging and therefore scary.[2] Once we succeed, we are in the firing line, so to speak, there can be no more excuses, postponements, I'll-do-it-when-I-grow-up fantasies (especially past the age of 20) or other means of chickening out. One of Maslow's main areas of interest was the nature of human potential; one of his main themes was that there is greatness in each and every one of us.

How this greatness manifests is entirely individual. The main thing is to dare to use it.


1. LeShan Lawrence. You Can Fight for Your Life. Thorsons. 1984.
2. Maslow Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. D. Van Nostrand Company. 1968.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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