Saturday, October 26, 2013

Building Bridges

After more than a full year of preparing, including building customized boats and taking crash courses in botany, Captain Meriweather Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark led their Corps of Discovery out of Saint Charles, Missouri, in May of 1804. Their round-trip journey to the Pacific Ocean was two-and-a-half years and 8,000 miles of backbreaking work, including crossing several deep gorges and frequently being forced to carry supply-laden boats overland for a dozen miles or more to find the next river or stream.

One of the most difficult challenges for the expedition came at the Great Falls Portage of Montana in June 1805. Here all equipment and supplies, including canoes, had to be carried or pushed in makeshift wagons across 18 miles of rough terrain to avoid a dangerous stretch of falls and rapids. Many in the company had been sick with an unknown illness for over a week when they arrived at Great Falls and the crude wagons required almost constant repair. Prickly pear cactus tore through the men's moccasins and the company encountered several aggressive animals, including a grizzly bear, a wolverine, and three bull buffalo in one eventful day. Clark wrote in his journal that the dog, Seaman, was 'in a constant state of alarm with these bear and keeps barking all night', making it difficult for the men to sleep. Lewis summarized the condition of his men this way:

They are obliged to halt and rest frequently for a few minute. At every halt these poor fellow tumble down and are so much fortiegued that many of them are asleep in an instant. In short, their fatiegues are incredible; some are limping from the soreness of their feet, others faint and [are] unable to stand for a few minutes, with heat and fatiegue, yet no one complains.

The 18-mile detour took 32 days for the Corps of Discovery to complete. It included near-drownings, a violent hailstorm, a sunken boat, and five days making two replacement canoes from Cottonwood trees.

When learning about the hardships of this expedition, it is easy to find yourself musing, as President Monson once did, 'If only there were modern bridges to span the gorges of the raging waters'! Modern bridges bring incredible benefits to those they serve. A bridge over Great Falls Portage would have allowed Lewis and Clark to cross in just a minute or two, possibly leading to an easier route that would have spared a month of hardship and hastening their arrival at the Oregon Coast. Such benefits would be unlikely to come without a cost, however. With all the benefits that bridges bring to those who come behind, very often they require incredible sacrifices from their builders.

As the Corps of Discovery was making its way back to Missouri in the summer of 1806, just such a bridge builder was born in faraway Prussia (modern-day Germany). His name was Johann Augustus Roebling. He would leave everything he had behind and move to the United States in his mid-twenties to become a failure of a farmer and then a modestly successful engineer. In 1867, he began working on the designs for the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

Just before construction on the bridge began, Roebling stood on a nearby dock completing the finishing touches on his designs. He wanted the bridge to be perfectly located and positioned to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. While on the dock, an arriving ferry crushed his foot, requiring several toes to be amputated immediately. The surgeries were insufficient, and he died from tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling, would take over the project and start construction on January 3, 1870.

Within a very short time of working in the caissons to build the foundation, Washington Roebling and many of the workers contracted decompression sickness. The illness left the younger Roebling paralyzed and forced him to direct the entire construction from his apartment, where he had a view of the bridge. For the next thirteen years until the bridge's completion, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, learned engineering and served as the critical link between her husband, the architect, and the engineers on site. The bridge was opened on May 24, 1883.

The cost to build the Brooklyn Bridge was officially $15.1 million, but that is only counting dollars. Forty four people died building the bridge-- men and women-- and the number of injuries was not counted. Emily Roebling, among others, gave up nearly all of her time for 13 years, learned a new trade, cared for a paralyzed spouse, and abandoned much of what had occupied her time before to focus on the massive construction project.

Within 15 years of the bridge's completion, the population of Brooklyn doubled from 580,000 to over a million people. Brooklyn would become a borough of New York City and New York City would become a major commercial hub, something most historians argue would not have been possible in a more confined city without the Brooklyn Bridge. Still one of the largest and busiest bridges in the world today, the Brooklyn Bridge serves more than 137,000 cars and 2,700 pedestrians every day.

Just as the Brooklyn Bridge has helped New York City to thrive more than it otherwise could have, there are bridges to be built in each of our lives if we are to reach our full potential and allow our children and grandchildren to do the same. There are people with whom we need to connect or reconnect, obstacles we need to avoid, destinations we need to reach and paths we need to make easier for those coming behind us.

Few bridges rise without sacrifice. In constructing bridges to the hearts of men, we will undoubtedly be called upon to give up our prejudices in order to find common ground upon which to build. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have shown us the way as they have formed a foundation of friendship with faiths that disagree or have even historically fought against the Church, erected a public policy that works across political party lines to emphasize unity and humanity, and continue to reach out to those who may not be familiar with the Church or no longer feel connected.

President Uchtdorf has explained how this is done. 'As you accept the responsibility to seek after truth with an open mind and a humble heart,' he taught, 'you will become more tolerant of others, more open to listen, more prepared to understand, more inclined to build up instead of tearing down, and you will be more willing to go where God wants you to go.'

A bridge does not connect the same place with itself, but rather links together two places or things that may be very different. As Brooklyn and Manhattan thrive separately but interdependently, so our greatest happiness lies in building bridges that unify us with others despite differences through tolerance, active listening, optimism, respect, and cooperation. Grounded by our faith in Christ, without exaggerating virtue, building bridges to the hearts of our family members, those we serve, those we live or work near, and perhaps especially those with whom we don't seem to have anything in common will enrich our lives and improve our charity.

If we are to build bridges over the waters of mediocrity and connect our present to our greatest potential, we will also very likely be asked to sacrifice our fears. The Lord himself asked us to, 'fear not even unto death' (D&C 101:36). Referencing General Stonewall Jackson's famous quote to, 'never take counsel from our fears', Elder Bednar recently taught:

To not take counsel from our fears simply means that we do not permit fear and uncertainty to determine our course in life, to affect negatively our attitudes and behavior, to influence improperly our important decisions, or to divert or distract us from all in this world that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

To not take counsel from our fears means that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ overrules our fears and that we can press forward with a steadfastness in Him. To not take counsel from our fears means that we trust in God's guidance, assurance, and timing in our lives.

Reaching our full potential or avoiding a particular rocky patch in our lives may require some tough decisions while we are yet a long way off and unable to see the path ahead. It may mean a change of careers or moving to a new place. It might mean proposing marriage, having another child, or facing life with something we see as a disadvantage. It might not make sense at the time, but we will build bridges that pass over unnecessary hardships as we listen and obey to the Lord and his prophets when they ask us to put aside our fears and move forward in faith. Elder Ballard has provided another example of how we build bridges when we put away our fears:

The growing prominence of the Church and the increasing inquiries from others present us with great opportunities to build bridges, make friends, and pass on accurate information... You as members can help this to happen by reaching out and sharing with others the basic information found in the Articles of Faith, along with such things as the facts, faith, families, and fruits of the gospel.

No doubt, there are bridges for each of us to be building today. There are relationships to be forged, goals to be reached, and people coming behind that will be able to go farther if we'll just prepare the way. Each bridge we set out to build will require a dedication of our time and most will only be successful if we are willing to sacrifice our pride and human frailty to trust in God and press forward with a steadfast faith in Christ.

Unlike the workers on the Brooklyn Bridge, we can speak directly to the Grand Architect of our individual bridges as we pray to our Heavenly Father with a broken heart and contrite spirit. He knows the blueprints for our bridges and can see the glorious potential of our effort. He also knows of our sacrifices-- of the metaphorical falls and rapids, sicknesses and storms, fatigues and wild animals that bar the way. He is cheering for our success and wants us all to progress along the path that leads to eternal life. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to build the bridges along that path that were impossible for us so that we can cross the wide chasms of sin and death and return to live with Him again.

As we make our way through the untamed wilderness of life in search of the truths of His kingdom, He asks only that we follow His example and drop a few planks across a brooklet or a stream, build a few bridges of love with people different from ourselves, achieve a few things greater than ourselves, and help pave the rest of the path so we, with our descendants, can reach the safety and prosperity of His presence.

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