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I’ve just finished reading John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments. It is a fascinating, compelling book, the kind that keeps you pondering its contents for days after it’s done. The book is exceedingly well researched, but more than that, Geiger’s an excellent writer; he is editorial board editor at The Globe and Mail.
The book “is a biography of an extraordinary idea,” according to the back cover, “That people at the very edge of death, often adventurers or explorers, experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to make one final effort to survive.” Thanks to a T.S. Eliot poem called “The Waste Land,” which memorializes the experience, this being has come to be known as “The Third Man.”
The experience is far more common that one might suppose. Geiger details one riveting account after another of men and women who endured incredibly perilous circumstances – in extreme environments – and lived to tell about it. From the last person to escape from the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, to Arctic explorers and deep-sea divers, the common thread in each story is that of an often unseen – but strongly felt – comforting presence that served to help the people in jeopardy escape their dire situations.
Who or what is this “incorporeal being?” Those who’ve experienced the presence differ in their interpretation. According to the book, some say it’s a guardian angel, some a long-dead loved one, others a hallucination.
Geiger also details medical experiments that were able to reproduce the sensation of the unseen presence in patients whose brains were stimulated with electrodes. He calls this apparent trigger in the brain, “the angel switch.”
Of course, if you subscribe to a purely – or even predominantly – materialistic worldview, being able to reproduce the sensation of The Third Man might indicate the experience is hallucinatory. Geiger suggests it’s an evolved coping mechanism.
But as someone who believes there is more to life than what we can see and experience in the physical realm, I came away from this book mulling over another possibility. Scientists tell us we’ve only tapped in to a small percentage of the brain’s potential. If there is a spiritual realm – one that occupies another dimension that we can’t normally perceive with our senses – isn’t it possible that those experiments (and indeed the life-threatening circumstances themselves) acted as a trigger that permitted the brain to discern something (or someone) that was, indeed, there?
Then I remembered some words, penned by the Apostle Paul 2,000 years ago. They are humbling words. And yet also remarkably comforting.
“Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:12