14 October 2021

On not waiting for a brush with death

If I had ever had a near-death experience (NDE) of my own, I would be leading with that story in this post. Since I have not, I'm going to make some second-hand applications of ideas that came to me during my reading of Bruce Greyson's book After.

The author's selection of near-death experiences in After is not remarkably different or more dramatic than earlier compilations by other authors. Nor does he come to startling new conclusions. The power of his book is in its almost plodding attention to classifications, statistics, comparisons, and the careful examination of mechanistic "explanations" for the mind's continuing ability to function when the brain is apparently disabled.

Over and over Greyson documents the experiencers' frequent testimony to the sharpness of their memories of being out of their bodies (often observing things as if from, above as rescuers pull their unconscious bodies from danger or doctors labor to revive them -- even observing things that they could not possibly have seen while conscious), meetings with dead relatives, the sense of being enveloped by love, accompanied by an unseen guide, and then coming back to normal consciousness with a renewed sense of purpose and perspective, and a conviction that death is not to be feared.

And he does all this with no doctrinal axe to grind. For every experiencer who cites an encounter with "Heaven," he can quote someone else who doesn't apply that label to the reality they experienced while near death or clinically dead. He lists the evidence that the mind is not simply a function of the brain's known chemical processes, but grants that we don't yet have a coherent explanation for how this is possible.

As I said, I've not had such an experience myself. Nor have I ever had other forms of supernatural experiences, although within my family such experiences have certainly occurred. But Greyson ends his book with a challenge: does the evidence that such things occur, and that experiencers gain a more humane and purposeful outlook, have implications for the rest of us? To put it in my own terms, which of these good outcomes (including lack of fear of death!) would I reject simply because, up to now, I haven't had own close brush with death?

One of Greyson's case studies gave me particular pause. Here's an excerpt:

Barbara Harris Whitfield had an NDE at age thirty-two when she suffered respiratory complications while immobilized after back surgery. She described a life review in which she reexperienced abusive childhood events from the perspective of other people involved....

"I could hear myself saying, 'No wonder, no wonder.' I now believe my 'no wonder' meant 'no wonder you are the way you are now. Look what was done to you when you were a little girl.'

"My mother had been dependent on drugs, angry, and abusive. I saw all this childhood trauma again, in my life review, but I didn't see it in little bits and pieces, the way I had remembered it as an adult. I saw and experienced it just as I had lived it at the time it first happened. Not only was I me, I was also my mother. And my dad. And my brother. We were all one. I now felt my mother's pain and neglect from her childhood. She wasn't trying to be mean. She didn't know how to be loving or kind."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I describe a fair amount of family dysfunction in my growing-up years -- violence, alcoholism, racism, and then the tragic story of my sister who repeatedly ran away from home to escape those things, and was murdered by a drug dealer. In telling these stories, I've permitted myself a number of unflattering descriptions of my parents. Should I repent of those descriptions?

For years, I've angrily rejected the cliche "your parents did the best they could," partly because they seem to have made deliberate choices that harmed us children. But reading Whitfield's story made me wonder how an experience like Whitfield's would change my perspective. For example: what if I could have experienced, for a NDE-like moment, what it was like to grow up in Japan during World War II, as my mother did? What was it like to see her city bombed by waves of American bombers? What was it like to be brought up in a Nazi-influenced school? What was it like to be formed by, not just one, but two cults of obedience -- to Hitler and to a divine emperor?

In the absence of a near-death experience, could I voluntarily undertake this exercise in empathy? Can I pray for God's help in doing so? I'm not giving any quick answer to this, but at least I'm asking myself the question.

Several of Greyson's cases refer to a specific contrast between our limited perspective in ordinary life and being on the edge of eternity, as in a near-death experience. The contrast: while in that near-death zone, experiencers report a total and complete awareness, an ability to see, or know, in all directions simultaneously, whereas here our bandwidth is extremely limited. Our brains serve as a filter, providing only the more or less linear stream of data we need to function now. Even with the best of empathetic intentions, I cannot deliberately open up this kind of channel.

How would such a perspective help me understand, not only my parents, my childhood, my own good and bad choices, but also disruptions in relationships that puzzle and frustrate me? One painful example: how would it help me to cope with people in the Donald Trump personality cult? -- especially those who are otherwise close to me? Would some kind of undifferentiated "it's all good" acceptance be demanded of me? If not, what lines do I draw? What fresh connections are required of me? Here, too (barring an NDE of my own!) I know I will need God's help.

W. J. Astore: We're mad as hell ... and fighting each other.

America needs an anti-imperial party, a “Come home, America” party, a party that puts domestic needs first as it works to downsize the military and dismantle the empire. Yet, in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 and the Two Minutes’ Hate, Americans are always kept hating some putative enemy.

On the other hand... Matthew's Gospel, Abba Joseph, and Micah Bales: You can become all flame.

Speaking of flame, sales of internal combustion cars in Norway may end as soon as April 2022.

Yet another Ted Lasso opinion piece, but it's one I like.

October 16 and 23: Quaker Religious Education Collaborative online workshop, Creativity and Design for Teen Sunday School Resources.

A delightful glimpse of the Tedeschi Trucks Band rehearsing:


Unknown said...

I don't see why you should repent of the descriptions, which are truthful accounts of what happened. Perhaps a bit more mercy. Yes, there are chains of causality which can go back generations. As far as possible, our moreal job is to stop the chain in our generation, so that we do not inflict the harm done us onto the next generation.

You story of your mother in Japan rang a bell: my former sister-in-law's mother was strafed by Russian airplanes when fleeing from Silesia in a cart behind a tractor at the end of 1944, seven months pregnant with my former sister-in-law. The latter carries the psychological wounds to this day, and my brother largely failed to shield his son, my nephew, from them.

Johan Maurer said...

I accept your definition of our job -- to stop the chain in our generation. Thank you.

One of the stories my mother told was the job assigned to children during the incendiary raids. While the elders were in their shelters, children were supposed to snuff out unexploded phosphorus bombs with their buckets of sand.

I have to add that my mother was not always the most reliable of reporters.