Spirituality Is Like the Golden Gate Bridge, Part 1

I live in San Francisco which is a city primarily accessible from the north and east by bridges (the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge).  You can reach the City from the south by land.  Only boats reach us from the west emerging from the Pacific Ocean into our Bay.

Bridges are quite fascinating spiritual metaphors.  Take our Golden Gate bridge, for instance.  It’s the ninth longest suspension span in the world (1.7 miles).  And believe me, my body has felt the pain of every inch of that span, having run in the SF marathon which crosses the bridge and back along the total route (about 8-9 miles in), with the bridge curving uphill from both ends to the center of the span!  It was brutal, especially with heavy fog and light mist in our typical July weather!

The bridge clearance is 220 feet from the high water.  It weighs 887,000 tons total.  And the two cables that span the bridge’s suspension are each composed of 27,572 strands of wire. There are 80,000 miles (129,000 km) of wire in the two main cables, and it took over six months to spin them.

Construction on the bridge began on January 5, 1933, and the first cars drove across on May 28, 1937.  The toll was 50 cents one way, $1 round trip and 5 cents surcharge if there were more than 3 passengers.  Those were definitely the good ‘ole days because the toll now is $6 per vehicle (charged only for southbound traffic).  Gotta love inflation!  The bridge traffic now averages about 41 million vehicles a year.

One of the most interesting Golden Gate Bridge facts is that only eleven workers died during construction, a new safety record for the time. In the 1930s, bridge builders expected 1 fatality per $1 million in construction costs, and builders expected 35 people to die while building the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the bridge’s safety innovations was a net suspended under the floor. This net saved the lives of 19 men during construction, and they are often called the members of the “Half Way to Hell Club.”

So why go to all the expensive, difficult, dangerous work to build this bridge?  Before the bridge was built, the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County to the north was by boat across a section of San Francisco Bay. Ferry service began as early as 1820, with regularly scheduled service beginning in the 1840s for purposes of transporting water to San Francisco.  San Francisco was the largest American city still served primarily by ferry boats. Because it didn’t have a permanent link with communities around the bay, the city’s growth rate was below the national average.

But in spite of the need, the obstacles from opposition were strong.  Many experts said that a bridge couldn’t be built across the 6,700 ft (2,042 m) strait. It had strong, swirling tides and currents, with water 500 ft (150 m) in depth at the center of the channel, and frequent strong winds. Experts said that ferocious winds and blinding fogs would prevent construction and operation.  It was too costly on every level!

The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with ship traffic; the navy feared that a ship collision or sabotage to the bridge could block the entrance to one of its main harbors. Unions demanded guarantees that local workers would be favored for construction jobs. Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most powerful business interests in California, opposed the bridge as competition to its ferry fleet and filed a lawsuit against the project, leading to a mass boycott of the ferry service.

But thankfully, strong vision, lots of courage, and collaboration between many dedicated experts, along with the investment of massive human and financial resources, produced a bridge that today is unarguably one of the most iconic structures in the world.

So what are some of the spiritual applications to this particular bridge metaphor?  Notice several.  First, the Golden Gate bridge looks like it’s simply straight across and level from one side to the other – until you get on it and start traveling across, especially on foot at which time you realize it’s actually uphill both directions.  A lot like the spiritual journey.  There’s no such thing as a straight, flat distance.  Spirituality is about life and life has ups and downs even though you can’t see them at first.  So don’t get discouraged.  Keep running or walking, keep moving forward – you’ll eventually get to the downhill side.  To get where you want to go, you need to cross the bridge.

Second, to build a strong bridge like the Golden Gate, every task is done with great care and persistence.  Look at the two main cables – 80,000 miles of wire, taking over six months to spin.  Imagine that – 6 months to do one spinning-the-wires task.  But without that attention to that specific project, the finished bridge wouldn’t be still standing strong today.

Spirituality involves engaging in sometimes menial tasks – routine – repetitive – over and over and over again.  It’s easy to take short cuts for the sake of brevity or expediting the process.  But healthy and deep spirituality is like a good wine – it takes time, careful and loving attention.  And some times you simply have to “sit with” it – let is simmer, percolate, age.  Spirituality takes patience and persistence.  Spinning the wires again and again.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel very productive.  Our hearts aren’t in it.  But we still do it.  It’s a sacred routine that ultimately builds a strong spirituality – a holy bridge from here to there.

That’s why the enduring religious traditions of the world have developed what they call spiritual practices – behaviors, activities, that you engage in over and over again – like spinning those wire cables around and around and around, each spin producing a stronger wire.  We pray, we meditate, we read, we serve others, we attend services, we practice healthy behaviors, we work on healthy thought patterns – over and over and over again – with each new practice, we’re building a stronger, deeper receptivity to the Spirit, and transformation increases.

Look at how long it took to build the Golden Gate bridge – January 1933 to May 1937 – four years.  But because the builders took this strategic time and attention to the process 73 years ago, over 40 million vehicles today make it to their destinations safely every year.

Stay tuned to my next post – we’ll look at two more ways I see the Golden Gate Bridge as a spiritual metaphor.  I’m reminded of these every time I walk or drive where I can see the bridge.  It truly is inspiring to me from every angle.

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