Bright Idea

No, I didn’t see a long tunnel with a light at the end, but I did have soot on my hands from the flash.  I’m no electrician and the ordering instructions weren’t clear about how to get the dryer installed, as well as delivered.  The driver, who spoke English haltingly, told me he would not set it up.  There was another problem with the order: the dryer cord was for a four-pronged outlet, but our house has a three.  I suppose that’s why the cord doesn’t get attached to the appliance.  Now, we lived in Scotland for three years.  Electronic devices there are sold with a cord that you have to wire into the plug yourself—different places have different outlet types.  With fear and trembling I’d wired a lamp or two.  I prefer not to play God when it comes to electricity.

I don’t know how many appliance-related deaths happen each year, but I’m sure it’s not a null set.  Here’s what happened.  A week after delivery I found time to go to the hardware store to exchange the four-prong for a three-prong.  I went home and wired it up.  The plug didn’t fit into the socket.  Muttering under my breath, I turned to the internet to find out what had gone wrong.  Well, it turns out that electric kitchen ranges are also not wired sometimes, and they take a different three-prong plug with wires handling different voltages or whatever.  Yet another weekend came and I finally got the right cord.  A little insecure from the two attempted efforts, I put the plug in the socket to see if it fit.  A bright spark and a loud pop occurred.  Two of the connectors had been touching and I’d closed the circuit.  If I’d been holding it differently, I wouldn’t have survived the experience.

As a child I once electrocuted myself, quite by accident, it is an experience I never wanted to have again.  I was so shook up after being so close to it again that I couldn’t face going back to the store to see if they had another one—the cord was now soot-blackened, and useless.  Living in a capitalist society my mind immediately turned to my electric bill, wondering how much that light and sound show would cost me.  The dryer is energy-efficient, all the more so for not having ever been used up to that point.  Now we’re hooked up and ready to go and I’m thinking how fragile life is.  And how, in middle and high school we had to have wood shop and metal shop but not a thing about that favorite tool of the gods—electricity.


Life as we Know it

Dying2BMeA friend asked me for a book. Since my life has mostly been about books, I’m generally happy to supply what I can. This friend is a cancer survivor and wanted to read Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me. The last time I saw this friend, she handed me the book, saying she didn’t care for it. Although the author tells of her dramatic Near Death Experience, and is very optimistic about all that we can improve by loving ourselves and others, she isn’t a Christian. Raised as an Indian living in Hong Kong and sometimes attending a Catholic school, Moorjani is conversant with several religions but doesn’t favor one above the others. Her experience of being in a coma with very advanced cancer and having a prognosis of days, at most, to live, yet coming out of the coma and being completely healed of disease within weeks could be overlooked on the basis of a belief system. I decided to read her account myself.

Ironically, Moorjani directly describes why she can’t accept any single religion in her book. Her reason is because religions tend to block being open to possibilities that fall outside of doctrine. Her Near Death Experience, described in great detail, doesn’t fit any particular religion very well, including her native Hinduism. It led her to believe in a kind of universalism with everyone ending up realizing their own divinity and loving all others unconditionally. Even though many of her interpretations of her experience are a bit too New Agey for me, I have a deep appreciation for her advocacy of trying to understand others and loving everyone. I saw nothing incompatible with Christianity there. Or any other ethical religion.

Religion can divide as much as, if not more than, plain common sense. Those who think deeply about it realize that religion should make life better for all. That seems to be its evolutionary purpose, apart from personal survival. Of course, some religions also reject evolution as well. When missionaries reached far shores and found good people living ethical lives, they feared for their souls, thinking only one religion could fit all. Many of us are heirs of such missionaries, being taught from our youngest days that living in fear and self-abasement is the loving, Christian way. It may be that a Hindu who learned to trust herself by nearly crossing the brink of death has something to teach the missionaries as well. If only they could listen.


NDEs

I love science. Like many young boys, I was probably enticed to science through science fiction. While I didn’t follow science to a career, I used it to study religious texts. Those who’ve never undertaken the challenge of trying to figure out what something written thousands of years ago—on clay!—really says may be surprised to learn just how much science is involved. Nevertheless, as comforting as reductionism may be, something just doesn’t feel right about it. Science is how we explain and understand our world, and it does a spectacular job of it. The problem arises when science becomes what Stephen Jay Gould called a “magisterium.” Magisteria have all the answers. Yes, science explains how matter and energy work and interact, but it has yet to explain satisfactorily what it feels like. Most days I feel like the person I’ve become accustomed to show to the world. That person is very much like every other—being born, eating, breathing, dying. Medical science can explain most of it, but what about the parts it can’t?

I just finished reading Ornella Corazza’s Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. I remember when the craze about this hit in 1981 with the release of the movie Life After Life. I was fascinated and terrified by it. Since a materialistic view of science dismisses anything that has the residue of spirits or souls, the phenomenon of the resuscitated dead reporting seeing their bodies from above, shooting through tunnels into the light, and sometimes meeting the dead (or God), were explained as last nano-second hallucinations as the brain prepared to shut down or reboot (upon resuscitation). That’s that. The answer, however, didn’t satisfy everyone. What about those cases where the dead person reported, in detail, what happened in other rooms, or things they couldn’t have seen in their own room, had they been conscious? Corazza takes these considerations seriously and tries to understand what may be going on. Obviously, her explorations will not convince a reductionist, but they may give pause to some of us.

What makes her approach so interesting is that Corazza takes into account an alternative way of looking at consciousness. While the facts of science are, by definition, universal, the contexts within which those facts are viewed are not. Having spent considerable time with Japanese scientists exploring consciousness, eastern ideas of the body inform her research. In the western world we have an easy familiarity with the Cartesian dualism of body and soul that does not fit into other worldviews. Corazza takes the interesting step of asking what if we apply an eastern paradigm of the body (one that understands soul as body, and not just in a materialistic sense) and apply it to the question of Near Death Experiences. The results are mind-stretching. I feel as if my consciousness got up from months of laziness and ran a marathon (or at least a 5-K). It’s a bit winded and parts of it are starting to ache a little. No reductionists need worry, however, because in that worldview none of this exists.


Who Knows?

While I have nothing less than respect (and just slightly less than utter awe) for my alma mater of Edinburgh, I cannot help being bemused at times by the alumni magazine. Between my wife and I, when we fail to cover our tracks adequately, we receive almost as many alumni magazines as exclusive credit card offers. Anybody intelligent enough to graduate realizes that these magazines are attempts to raise money, but they maintain the illusion of giving actual news. Thus it was I found myself facing a pithy piece stating in no uncertain terms that “Near-death events are ‘tricks of mind.’” The rationale given is that psychologists at both Edinburgh and Cambridge have decided it is so.

Now, I’ve never had a near-death experience, nor do I really ever want to. I don’t know what to make of the stories of those who claim to have “crossed over.” The problem is, there can be no winner to the argument of authentic experience versus mind trick. Those who know, by definition, can’t tell. Each side has good points to make. Some religions, particularly those of western orientation, tend to offer an afterlife anyway, so when someone appears to have slipped over the edge and claims they saw a great light, well, why not? Scientists often make the equally valid point that the rapid images that occur in the brain may seem to stretch on into minutes or hours and may incorporate images that our culture lends us of what to expect when the darkness falls. The near-death experience is, they say, final jolts of electrical “noise” just before brain activity ceases.

Some things we just can’t know, even if we attended Edinburgh. “Near-death experiences are not paranormal but are triggered by a change in normal brain function, according to researchers.” So the article says. There seems nothing paranormal about death—it is as natural an event as exists. It is common to us all, including pets and pests. The “paranormal” is the idea that something continues after death. If that something includes a deity or two, it becomes “religious” rather than “paranormal.” Whether religious, psychological, or paranormal, intelligent people continue to debate what is actually happening to those who have been briefly dead and have the medical records to prove it. For my part, if there’s something on the other side, I hope it’s a lot like Edinburgh. Maybe with a few less alumni magazines, however.

Life, and then this.