Friday, July 9, 2010

The Mysterious "Third Man"

I came across this fascinating article in an old edition of The Wall Street Journal.  No, it's not about the classic thriller by Graham Greene.  It reviews a book that talks of people in extraordinary circumstances, often ones of life-v.-death survival, who felt as if an unseen "other person" were with them in that time.
One case involved a man climbing towards a peak in the Himalayas on his own.  A storm came upon him and he was forced to camp for the night without a tent or sleeping bag (hmm, alone, in the Himalayas, no gear.  Huh??)  "I had an extraordinary feeling," he wrote, "that I was not alone."
This is not a unique case it would seem.  Charles Lindbergh described the same thing on his solo flight across the Atlantic.  Numerous 9/11 survivors described a "ghostly, unseen presence" helping them out of the smoke and the chaos.  Shackleton writes of a similar experience during his Antarctic fiasco and even T.S. Eliot writes of it in his ingenious poem, The Waste Land: "Who is the third who walks always beside you?  When I count, there are only you and I together."
So what accounts for this?  A purely psychological approach might yield that the hyperactivity in the brain at such times of extreme stress, might activate a subroutine of sorts in the neural pathways, calling forth whatever comfort it can and giving someone the strength to go on.  Others inevitably see The Divine at work.  John Geiger, author of the book The Third Man Factor, has this view:  "These occurrences suggest a radical idea—that we are never, really, truly alone, that we can summon someone—some other—in certain situations, most commonly in extreme and ­unusual environments."
So how about it, Strangers?  Anyone had this kind of experience?  Is it placebo from the brain?  Is it an altered state of consciousness?  Or do we really have unseen "others" watching out for us?

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