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What God and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ are teaching me about death — and life

maltese falcon

Sahan Nuhoglu / Shutterstock

Matt Paolelli - published on 02/22/23

Signs of God's love abound in the memories and impact of those we've lost to death, and the ways they inspire us to life.

I feel as though I have been surrounded by death lately—and not the peaceful death that comes from old age, but mostly the disruptive, stop-you-in-your-tracks passing of people who should have had many miles ahead of them. 

A former coworker’s teenage son died by suicide, a local third grader succumbed to a years-long fight against cancer, and a former classmate passed away seemingly without any warning or symptoms at age 39. (Not to mention the tens of thousands who have lost their lives in the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.)

None of these people was actively in my life, but each of their deaths has affected me in a profound way. And I know that what I’m feeling is only a microcosm of what their families and friends are going through.

The swirling questions of Why so soon? and How could a loving God …? reflect valid feelings that also reveal our humanity.

We can never understand God’s ways, no matter how hard we try or how ferociously we pray. But even in these moments of unimaginable tragedy, signs of God’s love abound in the memories and indelible impact of those we’ve lost, and the ways they inspire us to live every moment to the fullest.

Have you ever noticed that the people who die unexpectedly or succumb to a grave illness at a young age are often the ones whose lives are a pretty good template for all of us in some way? That doesn’t seem like a coincidence; it seems as though it might be part of a plan.

The Falling Beams Syndrome

I had a legendary English teacher at my Catholic high school named Brother Ruhl (who, incidentally, died completely unexpectedly in his 60s shortly after I graduated). We read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that year, and I’ll never forget one of the scenes from the book that Bro lectured on extensively.

Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective protagonist of this classic noir novel, relates the story of Spade’s search for Stan Flitcraft, who one day suddenly disappears from his family. Spade eventually locates him and discovers that Flitcraft has upended his life after walking by a construction site where a beam has fallen on him, nearly killing him. He realizes that if a falling beam could randomly end his life, he could choose to randomly change his life as well. So he leaves his family and his job and moves to another state. After a few years, Flitcraft has settled into an almost identical routine with a new family and a new job. To quote Hammett as Spade, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” 

I remember Brother Ruhl stating emphatically that we live in a world of falling beams, and that how we respond to them matters. This left an impression on my 17-year-old brain, and it resonates even more for my 40-year-old brain, as the beams around my life’s construction site can begin to feel less stable.

I am very much like Flitcraft in that I rush to take stock of my life when a beam suddenly falls beside me. Eventually the memory of the beam fades, however, and so does any urgency to change my life or outlook.

Unlike Flitcraft, falling beams for me don’t elicit a fear of being trapped in my daily grind, but rather goad me toward a greater investment in and awareness of the beauty in my life that I have allowed myself to define as a grind.

We live in a world of falling beams, and those beams reveal the inherent value and ultimate finitude of our time in these earthen vessels. And they’re not falling randomly, either. I trust that the master builder has a plan. After all, I’m only seeing the falling beams right now and not the mansion that is ultimately being built for me.

Two urgent tasks

All of this leaves us with two urgent tasks: to strive for personal holiness in our own lives and to love fiercely while holding on loosely.

The first one seems rather obvious, but Falling Beams Syndrome (I’m trademarking that) leads us astray every time. When the beams stay standing, we so easily forget that we weren’t made for this world, and spend our time in pursuit of the wrong glory.

The second one is even easier to knowingly dismiss.

We don’t want to remember that our lives are relatively short and that every morning we wake up—and those we love around us wake up—is a gift over which we have no real control. Our lives are not our own, and the people in our lives belong to God, too.

These two tasks are ultimately interconnected. If we are striving for holiness, we are loving those around us fiercely by willing their good in every interaction and treasuring our time with them. We are recognizing the gift of each day and relinquishing control through the peaceful knowledge that God has a plan for our lives that is ultimately for our own well-being and the well-being of those around us. This doesn’t preclude us from tragedy or suffering, but it can at least give those experiences a higher purpose.

I know this is all very easy for me to say, as I’m not grieving the loss of my own child, sibling, or close friend. But the beams that are falling directly on others right now are preparing me for the day when those beams might fall on me.

I pray that the peace that surpasses all understanding (Phillippians 4:6) is guarding the hearts of anyone dealing with overwhelming grief right now. And I pray that those deaths will be a call to love and holiness in the lives of all who knew them. May their memories be a blessing, a reminder of our own mortality, and a clarifying falling beam that ultimately spurs us on to gratitude and joy.

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