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