What can we know about the unseen?


The writer Margaret Atwood spoke in a recent interview about the “Third Man Factor,” which is when a person in an extreme situation feels and hears a spirit-like presence, a sort of guardian angel that encourages, gives guidance, or imparts vital information. The explorer Ernest Shackleton and aviator Charles Lindbergh have both spoken about the experience.

The human imagination is so vast as to seem boundless, and it’s only one tiny part of the dream of the universe that gave birth to us. Many phenomena are simply beyond the reach of rational analysis, but curiosity compels us to study them anyway, using the tools we have available. And, in our culture, science has arguably the highest status among those tools.

In his book on the subject, John Geiger makes the point that, despite scientific study, we don’t know definitively what’s going on. People of any faith interpret the “third man” as a divine companion, while agnostics see it as a brain function. Psychologists and other scientists have studied theories ranging from a coping mechanism to biochemical stress response.

Whenever I read about a scientific study of something like this, I feel a bit wistful, because analysis has a way of robbing it of its poetry. Sure, the Dalai Lama’s brain imaging studies of lifelong meditators are fascinating, but neither he nor any of the subjects needs that kind of “proof.” They know meditation works, because they do it and they’re part of centuries-old traditions that basically say, try this for yourself and you’ll see it works.

“You cannot reason your way into being present. You cannot reason your way into love. You cannot reason your way into fulfillment.” ~ Philip Shepherd

What’s wrong with leaving the unseen alone and chalking it up to an experience that can’t be fully explained? We seem still to be ruled by the story that such “superstitions” are the mark of a primitive mind, and now that we’ve got science and reason on our side, we can do better. No room here for “magical thinking.”

This stance is a subset of the Story of Progress, which holds that human civilizations follow an ever-improving trajectory of development, and that our present rationally-skewed culture – including our ideas, beliefs, tools, institutions and social structures – is the best of the best of the best.

I can hear you laughing. Every day, don’t we have conversations, listen to radio programs and read articles about how much all of those things need change and improvement? Sometimes we even hear that these are the worst of times, and occasionally it does feel that way. It becomes a Catch-22, because when you’re stuck in the progress mentality, all solutions are chained to it and therefore yield more of the same.

Maybe one of the ways out of the Story of Progress is to hold experiences like the Third Man lightly, to revel in the wonder of them and let my imagination roam. Some children have imaginary friends; their relationship to the world’s wonders and beauty is much more fluid and unquestioning. Even adults can be fascinated by the possibilities. Remember Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Or Wim Wenders’ captivating 1987 film, “Wings of Desire?” Not to mention the long-running TV series about angel encounters.

I’m not saying that guardian angels are our ticket to a better world, one without tracking and climate change and poverty and violence. My point is that it’s more fun to be open to the existence of other worlds within, beside and beyond this one. Fairy tales and mythic stories handle these realms quite well, which probably accounts for their enduring appeal and continued relevance.

Fascination with the unseen ranges from poets and artists to palliative care physicians. Dr. Ira Byock, one of the latter, speaks of “dying well,” and has wonderful stories of patients who taught him much about crossing that threshold.

I’m going to entertain the possibility that I don’t have to wait until my last breath to see the open-door invitation to experience the mystery and magic of the world, nor must I put myself into extreme life-threatening situations. I can simply let my body and senses ride the currents of imagination and see where they take me.

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