Thursday, March 19, 2009

Close to the Edge (by Nicole)

As Dani pointed out in Monday's post, this novel opens with a sudden death when Isabel witnesses a young man fall to his death at the theatre (p.5).

The 'fall from the gods' not only raises questions of responsibility and blame, but also provides the characters (and the reader) with a vivid and haunting image of our mortality - how close we are to death at any given time. As Isabel contemplates what she has seen, she realises she has had a sudden and jolting reminder of how 'close to the edge' we all are:
She was shaking now...Something terrible happened and people began to shake. It was the reminder that frightened them; the reminder of just how close to the edge we are in life, always, at every moment. (p. 11)
It is a theme that Alexander McCall Smith comes back to again and again. As Isabel thinks of another young couple, separated by death as a result of a freak fall she thinks:
You loved one another, and this made you so vulnerable; just an inch or so too close to the edge and your world could change. (p.15)
Despite the odd and freakish circumstances that surround the particular death at the start of the novel, there is still a strong sense in which Isabel's experience is a universal one. Even in Western culture, where we cocoon ourselves so we don't have to face death too often, an event like a sudden and unexpected death will remind us that death is still ultimately a power beyond our control.

Last month, for example, the bushfires in Victoria unnerved many of us because of their ferocity and speed. It seemed unthinkable that so many ordinary people died so suddenly and were powerless to prevent their own deaths. For some of us - either through the first hand experience of a survivor or the vicarious experience of a spectator - an event like the recent bushfires will be the only time that we think about about a life beyond this one. I noticed an interesting quote in the newspaper on the Monday after the weekend of devastating bushfires:
Maryanne Mercuri, her husband Rod and children Allison 11 and Dean and Kirk, both 9, took shelter in the garage. When that caught fire they ran to their shed, before running back to the house. Maryanne covered the children with towels, just something to protect them from the heat.

"We didn't have time to wet them. I couldn't even see them; it was just whatever I could grab in the dark and the smoke. They were good kids, they were really good kids. But we were all scared. We were all so scared. We even talked about heaven."
There is something about death that has power to teach us wisdom. According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, 'It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.' (Eccles. 7:2) And in Psalm 90, we are taught to pray: 'teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom' (Psa. 90:12).

How have you experienced this truth in your own life? Have you had experiences in which witnessing a death or coming near to death yourself jolted you into a new level of understanding, or compelled you to wrestle more seriously with the claims of Christ? Did the effect last, or did it wear off over time? And what have you learnt about how to talk about death and mortality with friends who don't yet trust in Christ?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Picture: Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533). Look at it from the right angle, and you'll see the skull!


A Linguistic Life said...

This is a really good question. On Thursday is was five years since my mum died from cancer at the age of 52. She was a believer, but lots of our friends and family are not and I know many of them wondered why such a 'good person' should have to have their life cut so short like that. I remember one of my aunts, mum's eldest sister, saying tearfully something along the lines of 'Why her? She was so good. I'm not good. Why couldn't it be me?'. There was a sense that death is understandable if the person isn't particularly nice, but entirely unjustified if they're a 'good person'. Of course this is not the way God sees it at all. None of us is good. But this is a hard truth to tell older relatives and I certainly felt that it wasn't a helpful thing to point out at that time of raw grief.
Another thing I found interesting at the time was another relative saying to me that she envied my 'religion' because at least it could give me some comfort at times like this. Not being a believer herself, she could nevertheless see that there was some connection between 'religion', death and grief.
I would love to hear others' stories about lovingly raising the issues of mortality and reconciliation with God with older unsaved relatives. It is something I continue to struggle with with my dad, especially when he hears of someone else who has died of cancer or something else prematurely.

Nicole said...


I haven't been ignoring this comment. I've been thinking about it all week and hoping that others would share some stories!

My mum lost her mum (my nanna) when she was a similar age to your mum. She wasn't a Christian but a REALLY nice person (and I'm not just saying that - she was loved by everyone). In the last week of her life, my mum (a new Christian herself at this point) shared the gospel with her and challenged her to put her trust in Jesus - and she did!

Our immediate family have always been so thankful that she did, and knowing that we could be sure we would see her again in heaven helped us in our grief. But the idea that my nanna needed to become a Christian makes no sense to the rest of the extended family, because they think you go to heaven if you are good.

I know that my mum has had some awkward conversations with her family since then about this. Her father has the attitude that 'everyone goes to heaven, don't they?'.

I think my mum has dealt with her family in a very loving and patient way. She doesn't try and bring up the topic every time they meet now - but when she has brought it up, I think she has dealt with the topic courageously but sensitively. At times the message of what she's said has caused offence - but not the way she has said it. Perhaps this is part of the answer?

A Linguistic Life said...

Thanks Nicole,
That's a good point to be reminded of - that we can present the message in an inoffensive way even if the message itself is taken as offensive. I continue to pray for grace to be able to do that!