16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Relationships that Kill and Relationships that Save
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 03/20/2011
Today I’d like to take a look at personal relationships from the vantage point of two stories, told to you this morning by R. M. and S. V. The first story is called “The Skeleton Woman”, and the second is called “The Bridge”.
The two stories are complex, rich, and at least a little bit creepy. Each story also gives us a pretty intense glimpse into the interaction between two people, one of whom, in each story, is particularly needy and demanding in his or her own way. I’ll warn you that it’s not always going to be easy to tell if the interactions between the couples are healthy or damaging.
And although there are some Sundays when we come here to church to hear a lot of answers, these stories, for me anyway, mostly bring up a lot of questions, questions about what works and what doesn’t work in a close relationship.
Many of us have been in different sorts of close relationships with people who needed a lot from us, or where we needed a lot from another person. These relationships might be ones between a child and a parent, or between friends, or acquaintances, or siblings, or a romantic relationship. When these situations arise we may wonder about what degree of proximity is healthy and what is destructive. It is my hope that these stories might shed more light on these close relationships of ours. They will certainly demonstrate the depth and complexity that each of these connections have – depth and complexity that you may not even realize is there until you hear these stories.
We’ll begin with R. telling us about the skeleton woman.
The first thing that resonated with me in this tale is that the skeleton woman was almost completely destroyed by what was probably the first close relationship she ever had, the one with her father. Her father disapproved, and threw her into the sea, which broke her entirely but somehow still allowed her to live, in pieces, far under the surface of the water. How many people I have met who are living this way, metaphorically, living a broken life because of some early relationship. They don’t really want, they don’t think they have the capacity to be dragged to the surface and put back together – they can’t even imagine how that would happen. And yet sometimes, just like the skeleton woman, they are.
Someone comes along rather innocently and gets their metaphorical fishing line all tangled up in their business, and the next thing anyone knows that poor broken person is being brought up to the air. And in real life I think this can be just as scary as it was when our skeleton woman appeared to be chasing that poor fisherman all the way back to his home.
Perhaps there have been times in your life when you have started to get close to someone and then realized how very fragmented they really were, and it scared you and you tried to flee, but by that point it appeared that they were chasing you all around. Your fishing line was all caught up in their bits and pieces, and they couldn’t help but pursue you, no matter how fast or far you ran.
Perhaps when all the inadvertent running and chasing stopped, you too were moved to compassion by the ruined pile of a former person you had in front of you. Perhaps you, too, were the one to gingerly put one piece back where it ought to be, and then the next, until all the bones were lined up in more or less the right order. Perhaps you said to yourself then, I’ve done what I could here. I’ve reordered what seems impossible to restore, and now I’ll go over here and get some sleep.
Or maybe you are the skeleton woman.
If you are, this story is important for you to hear. This story tells you that no matter how much someone has broken you, discarded you, that there is the chance that you can be brought back to a real life. This story tells us that it will take another person, a compassionate person, to make that happen for you, and perhaps that is true. It is also true that there will be one point where someone can put your bones back in the right order for you, and there will be another point where it is up to you to nourish yourself to regain your strength and humanity.
Our skeleton woman regains her humanity by literally feeding on the fisherman as he sleeps. She drinks his tears and holds his heart in her hands, and in this way is re-fleshed and fully restored. Once we get past the creepy factor, what can we glean from this part of the story?
I wonder if the full restoration of the skeleton woman’s humanity occurred because of her proximity to his humanity. I wonder if she couldn’t completely be made whole unless she literally tasted his humanness, drank of that which shows sorrow and longing, hold that which feels and hurts and loves. Maybe this strange feast reminded her of what it is to be really alive, not just surviving. At any rate, the skeleton woman is made whole, fully human once again, because she feeds off of the fisherman’s humanness, the very qualities that make him a person and not only a skeleton.
And maybe that is what those of us who are fully broken by others need in order to be returned to humanity. We need to be immersed in humanness, human feelings and human interactions. It’s great to have someone put our bones back together to be sure, but we also must dwell within the humanity of someone else, so that what was taken from us by one human being can be returned by another.
Maybe it is only the thing that destroyed us that can rebuild us.
The relationship between the skeleton woman and the fisherman did not necessarily need to be romantic, yet it became so. What is more important to me is that their process of extreme closeness actually works for their relationship. The woman is returned to full life, full humanity. The fisherman no longer runs away from the woman, but travels with her. And, perhaps most poignantly, the story tells us that the couple was always well fed together by the creatures that the damaged, now restored woman had known in her most destroyed, most ruined days. Her time at the bottom of the sea was not just a wasteland of loss and destruction. The couple used that time of suffering to feed themselves forever. That is true, and it is all we know.
The Skeleton Woman is a story of the restoration that can come for a person from another. The story called The Bridge offers an entirely different sort of conclusion. We’ll hear it now from S. V.
So. A very different ending to what in some ways is a similar tale.
We have again a person who is going about their life, in this case striding forth with a new plan of what to do and who to be. And again, we have an unusual stranger with an odd request which becomes an overwhelming demand. Our protagonist in The Bridge is surprised, like our fisherman, to find himself keeping someone alive, much to his own detriment. But it is here where you’ll see the stories diverge. There is a critical difference between the two that explains why, I think, that the stories end so very differently.
In both stories we have characters who are overwhelmingly in need. In the first, the skeleton woman cannot be restored to full living without the actions and presence and body of the fisherman. In The Bridge, the person hanging down from the railing will die without the continued support of the person holding the rope.
In the first story, however, the needy person was the victim of circumstance and abuse. She was dragged back to the surface against her will. The fisherman put her basic structure back together, but then she was the one who did the work of the ultimate renewal. Even though her renewal was completely enabled by a literal dive into another person, it was still instigated by her. The one who suffered, in the end, created the conditions for her own salvation.
In the Bridge, we have the opposite situation. The needy person hanging off the bridge, being kept from death by another, orchestrated this entire situation. Yes, his position is precarious, for sure, and it is surely true that his life is in the hands of the person holding the rope. The hanging person would like to be kept alive by the rope holder, just like the skeleton woman was saved by the fisherman.
But the hanging person in The Bridge makes no effort to save himself. The hanging person put himself into his situation, and when given the chance to change it does absolutely nothing to improve or solve the problem. And we see the result. The caregiver quickly became unwilling to be the permanent solution to the hanging person’s problem.
The same big question that arises for me out of these two stories is this: Can one person save another?
I think in our everyday lives we are asked to save each other pretty regularly, often in ways small and sometimes in ways tremendously large and overwhelming. These stories say to me, yes, one person can save another – in fact, sometimes it is only another person who can save someone.
However, the conditions of that salvific situation matter tremendously. According to the stories, the salvation of the needy, the happy ending or lack thereof, has everything to do with the agency, the involvement, the ownership of the person doing the needing.
If the needy person owns the problem and acts to save himself, then any request for help is possible. You can even say to someone, “In order to solve my problem and restore myself to health, I literally need to take your heart out and hold it in my hands for a while,” and somehow that can work. Even something that demanding, that invasive, can work for both the giver and the receiver, so long as the receiver is the one in charge of the problem and continues to be the one acting on his or her own behalf.
But what doesn’t work is for the needy person to hand the very problem over to the caregiver. It doesn’t work to say “I need so much. Take care of this problem for me.” It is that very lack of ownership that causes the person on the bridge to let go of the rope.
The person standing on the bridge gave the ownership of the problem back to the needy person. Both of them acknowledged that the person at the end of the rope would die if he didn’t own his own problem. The needy person still didn’t take control. And so salvation could not be reached in the way it was for the skeleton woman and the fisherman. There was no happy ending.
Is there anything here for us to take back to our own lives, our own situations? I know that each of us dwells in a web of relationship just as thick and messy as the ones in these stories, even if our problems aren’t metaphors and our solutions aren’t so literally lifesaving – or life taking.
But I ask that you consider how ownership of a situation might affect the ways in which you help the people you love in your lives, or the way in which the people you love are helping you.
Are you owning more than you should?
Are you refusing to take up what is yours?
Reflect on those questions for a while. Maybe you can get yourself away from the bridge and its desperate choices, and more towards a life where your hard times feed you and those that you love, rather than destroy you.
May it be so.
 “The Skeleton Woman,” retold by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run with the Wolves (New York: Ballantine, 1995). “The Bridge,” Edwin H. Friedman, Friedman’s Fables (New York: Guilford Press, 1990.)