blue jasmine 2 We are all just a little crazy. Did you ever stop and think about that? We like to think our quirks are shared by everyone, but they aren’t necessarily. We are profoundly unique. That’s the positive way of looking at this. We are all just on the edge of normal, and that’s mostly good.

We also like to think there is some notion of normal to which we ought to measure up, but we always fall short. At least that’s the way I grew up, falling short. We never quite align to everyone’s satisfaction, and then we say things like “Oh, he’s just nuts,” or “she’s crazy.” You sometimes wonder what normal is against which we measure everyone, ourselves included.

Listen, I am not one to argue there should be no standards of character or behavior. My faith tradition provides plenty of guidance on these matters. There are certain paths that lead to what is good. Others don’t. The old adage “I’m okay, you’re okay” led us down a path that anything goes. Many lives have suffered by that advice. Our society is damaged because people are led to believe that whatever they want to do is okay.

But, still, even with standards of good behavior in place, out there on the edge of normal we can often see things more clearly. Sometimes we get a better view of things. Some parts of normal may not be very good for us. Sometimes we see the need to change things.

Last week Sharon and I had the delight of seeing Woody Allen’s marvelous new movie Blue Jasmine (Cate Blanchett is utterly fabulous, by the way). At exactly the same time, coincidentally, I finished reading Walker Percy’s fascinating novel The Second Coming (published in 1980). I highly recommend both. Both have to do with living out on the edge of normal.

In the movie, we watch the painful fall of the main character, Jasmine, from the luxury of the ultrarich to the terrifying, dismaying prospect of actually finding a job. This new status is not accepted gladly, to say the least. In fact she cracks. There is something scary here for Jasmine out on the edge, but she does get new clarity about what was profoundly wrong about the normal of her earlier life.

In the novel, we go through the fall of another character, Will Barrett, from, once again, the comfortable life of the country club to wandering in parking lots at 4 AM, falling into caves, missing a daughter’s wedding, that sort of thing. And then his plot gets tangled up with the plight of a young woman who has just escaped from shock therapy in a mental hospital. She is hiding out in the woods in an old abandoned greenhouse, like Robinson Crusoe, literally piecing her life back together.

The pattern from both movie and novel is that new clarity may come from getting tossed out on the edge of normal. There may be new understanding of how empty normal has become. There is an indictment on some of the things we take for granted. Normal allows people to cheat on others. Normal allows us to look the other way when we see bad things going on. Normal keeps us silent because, well, we want to stay normal. But sometimes we need a break.

Percy seems to get this whole thing right: “The name of the enemy is not the death of dying,” Will says, “but the living death.” So many of us, he discovers, living in the normal, have died already, while still living. That’s horrifying.

But here’s the biggest insight: “There is a difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive” once again (emphasis mine).

Or said another way: “Death is a way out of a life-which-is-a-living-death. War and shooting is better than such a peace. But what if there is life?” (emphasis mine).

This is it. Breaking the normal has brought, painfully and disturbingly, new insight for these characters into the new possibility of life. Knowing what “life-which-is-a-living-death” feels like is the beginning of new life.

As we end the movie, I don’t think Jasmine discovers life on the other side of knowing. Though we might speculate that this is a new beginning for her, she seems to end out on the tragic, scary edge of crazy. But Will seems to have discovered new life, a very different life, a second coming, as the book’s title suggests, into life. As a Christian, I believe this is the life into which we are invited. Sometimes it takes being on the edge of normal to discover what that life really is.

Well, at least I hope you go see the movie and read the book. They are both, though unsettling at times, fabulous.