On the Edge

Sometimes you get to the point in the road where fear takes over

I’ve just returned from a week in New Mexico. I love the Southwest - especially the landscape. Blue skies, red rocks, green valleys. Its far horizons, the close-in complexity of its history.

On a day trip, we drove from Santa Fe to Chimayo (a hamlet about 40 minutes north). On a whim, I suggested that we continue on to the village of Truchas on the high road to Taos.

I confess: I wasn’t thinking. I’m afraid of heights!

I should have taken the description “high road” seriously. The highway rises from 6,000 feet in Chimayo to 8,500 in Truchas - and as it reaches the village, it narrows and twists. But that’s not all. Truchas isn’t just on the road, it hangs on the side of a mountain, almost as if clinging for survival in the harsh landscape. Indeed, there were a few ruined buildings that looked as if they’d lost their footings and were actually sliding into the valley far below.

Up there, on the edge, I began to feel panicky. I didn’t want to get out of the car and walk around. All I wanted was to turn around and get off the mountain. Our host (who was driving) obliged, and we did a three point turn on the road (yikes!) and headed back down to Santa Fe.

Several years ago, Archbishop Rowan Williams and I were talking about the future of Christianity. Neither of us were feeling particularly optimistic about the institutional church. I asked him where he found hope. “At the edges,” he said, “Look to the edges. There’s always hope at the edges.”

I’ve warmly quoted the good Archbishop many times since, always encouraging worried church folk to “look to the edges” for hope. But at Truchas, up there at the edge, I didn’t feel hope. All I felt was danger and fear. I didn’t want to look. I wanted to be safe.

We’re all on edge. The world is on edge. This past week - the week in which I was admiring the views in New Mexico - was terrible. Eighteen months of the pandemic, hospitals overflowing, even children getting sick. Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers driving health policies in some states. The climate report, “Code Red” for humanity, horrible data affirmed by the first recorded rain on the Greenland ice cap. The Taliban marching across Afghanistan with women and children fleeing, fearful of their fundamentalist advance. Earthquake in Haiti. Hurricane and flooding. We’re all on edge. And the view from here is terrifying.

Edges are, indeed, dangerous. Edges create anxiety, tension, irritability, cynicism, numbness, anger, and excessive worry. We see news stories every day about people who “snap” and are unable to cope with living on the edge: frustrated parents at a school board meeting, a violent passenger on an airplane, burned-out health workers threatening to quit, or an angry man claiming to have a bomb outside the Library of Congress. Sadly, people who are on edge often look for others to throw off the edge - imitating the primal impulse to placate angry gods?

But edges are odd. There’s something called “edge theory” in psychology. That’s the drive toward survival in life-threatening situations. If one doesn’t surrender to fear at the edge - or the temptation to toss others from the mountain - people at edges learn to cooperate in creative ways to solve problems. “Edge theory” in environmental science has long noted that edges are places of great bio-diversity - zones of ecological encounter - are often stronger, with more resilient and sustainable ecologies than more isolated natural habitats.

Carolyn Kagan, British psychologist and social activist, has suggested that the individual and environmental models of edge theory can work for communities in crisis: “By working at the different ‘edges’, we were able to involve and influence the system as a whole, could release more creativity and resources overall, develop ways of working that were different from how any of us had worked before, and undertake work that was likely to last longer.”

In short, if we overcome our fear of being on the edge, the edge emerges as a location of possibility, innovation, community, and transformation.

All of this reminds me of Luke 4. In the story, Jesus read from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” He closed the scroll and announced, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His neighbors, however, weren’t impressed. According to Luke, “they got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

A violent mob on edge.

What did Jesus do? “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

It is one of the most anti-climactic moments in the New Testament.

Jesus walked through the fear at the edge and continued on teaching, healing, and gathering a community of followers who worked together for a kingdom of liberation and love. He didn’t panic. There’s a strange, brief, steely courage to that single sentence in Luke - Jesus faced the terror at the edge and went on.

Maybe that’s what Archbishop Rowan was saying that day. At the edge, there is danger and fear. We can see our death, the end of things. But it transforms us. We face it, steady ourselves, and, just perhaps, see the horizon of our own lives and future differently. If we don’t fall or get thrown off the cliff, we might just find the courage to walk through the angry mob and get on with the work.

And, I bet that if one brave soul does so, many will follow. We might just be surprised by those who join us in a journey to heal this broken world. Toward a horizon of hope.

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The zone where two communities overlap, called an ecotone, shares characteristics of both communities and therefore is diverse. That is, the edge of a community is more diversified than its center, a phenomenon also known as “edge effect.” . . .the region where the land and sea overlap. . . is one of the best examples of edge effect in the world.
— Allan Schoenherr

Edges are more beautiful than anything—
Where the quiet deep shallows into loveliness,
Where the clouds feather to wavering silver,
And color kisses its brighter self.

Life is most whitely light
Where its low edge
Melts in the still pool of death,
As the sky-rim sinks
In a moon-filled sea.

— Henry Bellamann

People think edges are bad, but they are really there to keep up from falling to pieces. They don't hold us back, they hold us in. They hold us together. 
― Lisa Mangum

We marvel at people who build houses on the edge of the cliff, but is there a person in this mortal world who doesn't stand on the edge of the cliff? 
― Mehmet Murat İldan

I thought to die that night in the solitude where they would never find me… 
But there was time… 
And I lay quietly on the drawn knees of the mountain, 
staring into the abyss…
I do not know how long… 
I could not count the hours, they ran so fast 
Like little bare-foot urchins - shaking my hands away… 
But I remember 
Somewhere water trickled like a thin severed vein… 
And a wind came out of the grass,
Touching me gently, tentatively, like a paw. 

As the night grew 
The gray cloud that had covered the sky like sackcloth 
Fell in ashen folds about the hills, 
Like hooded virgins, pulling their cloaks about them… 
There must have been a spent moon, 
For the tall one's veil held a shimmer of silver… 

That too I remember…

And the tenderly rocking mountain 
And beating stars… 

I smelled the raw sweet essences of things, 
And heard spiders in the leaves 
And ticking of little feet, 
As tiny creatures came out of their doors 
To see God pouring light into his star… 

… It seemed life held 
No future and no past but this… 

And I too got up stiffly from the earth, 
And held my heart up like a cup…

— Lola Ridge

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