For the past week I have been reading a ms. (the current working title is Straight Talk) sent me by P. M. H. Atwater, what is to be her final (and very big!) book on her years of investigations of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Atwater is a leading independent scholar in this area, and I’ve enjoyed and learned from her writings for years, even while having scholarly quibbles with her conclusions at times. She has interviewed literally thousands of NDErs.
One of the things that stayed with me on this reading was her insistence that while there is enough commonality in the experience that we can talk about NDEs, there is not a “standard” NDE for all people. Rather the particulars of the NDE seem to be tailored to the individual. If someone’s basic view and faith are OK, e.g., they are likely to have a wonderful mystical experience that reinforces and empowers their basic approach to life. If they need to be shaken up, they are liable to have one of the rarer “negative” NDEs – whose long-term effect on them is positive.
This is one of those things I want to believe. That is, I’m happy to think some smarter, more spiritual, more advanced “beings,” I’ll call them Helpers, are watching over us and guiding our experience to maximize our growth, even if it involves some apparent suffering at times. I know it’s not fashionable in academic and intellectual circles to think like this: after all, we, humanity, are the peak of life, and there aren’t any spiritual beings anyway, right? But I have long followed, as best I can, a policy of being honest with myself and as honest as possible with everybody else, so yes, there’s this side of me – this “childish” side – that wants to believe in helping, superior beings. I may well be wrong about the reality of this, but that’s the way I feel….And maybe there’s a quite realistic quality to this belief to, even if it appeals to the child in me.
While thinking about this off and on the past couple of weeks, I got an email from a colleague I hadn’t heard from in years, asking if I would like to hear about his transpersonal experience – on the condition that I keep it confidential while he is alive. As he’s a respected brain surgeon, and the surgical community is known for its hard-headed and skeptical attitudes, I understood this, and was happy to promise confidentiality.
He – let’s call him Dr. Bill, not his real name, but reading better than Dr. Anonymous – sent the experience along, and I was quite impressed by it. I’ve heard hundreds of psychic experience stories in the 50+ years of my career, but this had a specificity to it, and it fit right in with my thinking about Helpers, so I’m going to share his story, altered a little bit in irrelevant details to maintain his and the other folks’ anonymity.
Alex Smith (not his real name) was a kindly, round faced, retired airline mechanic of sparse receding gray hair. His lively hazel-blue eyes mirrored, to Dr. Bill, both mirth and a warm compassionate humility. Mutual friends had told Dr. Bill that Alex was quite psychic, and while Dr. Bill didn’t believe in that kind of nonsense, he thought he should meet Alex and see for himself.
Dr. Bill wrote me,
“On a warm March evening in 1971, Alex relaxed in his easy chair as we sat across from each other in his modest Southern California home. I’d given him my wrist watch and he leaned back with eyes closed as he idly fingered it. Then he spoke haltingly, describing various visions and impressions which danced before his mind’s eye. Among other things I clearly recall him saying, “You’re going to meet a man named John. He will have had an injury to his left leg. He’ll be working not in the military but associated with the military…. I hear the name Monmouth.”
“At the time I did not yet know Alex well but I knew that some psychic persons claimed to sense things about people by handling their personal belongings. Being a product of years of medical and surgical training and with some fifteen years of surgical practice, I was dubious. This background preempted my placing any credence at all in such uttering. Though I’d no inkling of it then, this and subsequent impossible events were to secure a dynamic restructuring in my own comprehension of what nature and life are all about.”
“Some three weeks having passed, I stirred one morning from my normally sound sleep to a half awake, fugue state. It was still dark out. A strange thought-voice was seemingly speaking right inside my mind, ‘He needs to make a telephone call.’ A separate part of me seemed to hear my own mind thinking the reply, ‘Okay give me the number.’ Having then come fully awake, I switched on the bed lamp. What possessed me I still don’t know, but I hastily scribbled ten digits across the face of the telephone book on my night table.”
“Being unsure of the first area code digit I penned both 201 and 401.”
“During odd moments throughout the day the thought, ‘He needs to make a telephone call,’ kept popping into my mind in the same way that a catchy tune sometimes annoys one by repeatedly surfacing and resurfacing. Since it was utterly ridiculous I, of course, kept rejecting the whole thing and putting it out of my mind.”
“By the following afternoon things were different. By then I’d done some rationalizing. It would cost only a dollar fifty or so to place the call, and it would put my mind at ease. At that price the remedy was cheap and then I’d know for sure that the whole thing was as silly as it seemed.”
“Upon twice dialing 401 and the additional seven digits, there was only the automatic non-operative number signal and I heaved half hearted sigh of relief. Probably I’d simply had an odd dream.”
“Then I tried the same number but with the 201 prefix – and my well ordered cause and effect scientific world tumbled.”
“Having previously rehearsed what I might say, I quickly introduced myself as a physician researching psychic matters when a surprised male voice answered. That voice belonged to one John P. Crumbaugh. The name “John” caused Alex Smith’s prediction to explode in my mind.”
“Yes, Mr. Crumbaugh had had an injury to his left leg, but it didn’t bother him. It was true that he didn’t work in the military but his job did involve elaborate checking of electronic gear purchased by the military.”
“As for “Monmouth,” he worked at Fort Monmouth, N.J.”
“Through our subsequent correspondence, Mr. Crumbaugh and I discovered that we had common interests both in problems of electronic guidance for aircraft and in the question of the biological effects of radio energy. The latter is electromagnetic energy and should not be confused with the toxic energy problems of X-ray devices or atomic reactors. In short, we seemed to be kindred souls.”
“The correspondence further deepened the mystery.”
“His telephone number was doubly unlisted. Having been installed privately by Mr. Crumbaugh, this particular telephone was unlisted at the telephone company and wasn’t even listed inside the plant where he worked. Had he not been in his office when I dialed, it would have gone unanswered.”
“Alex Smith’s prediction that I’d meet a man named John was fulfilled when a medical colleague and I subsequently visited Mr. Crumbaugh in New Jersey. Our far ranging discussion held us long into the night.”
“Signal events sometimes change lives and these happenings certainly had precisely such an effect upon mine. Having matriculated in the orderly time sequenced cause and effect world of physics and chemistry, I was confident that the nature of biological energy processes would be equally orderly. Having dissected brains as a medical student and actively practiced surgery for many years, I knew something of the mind’s perceptive possibilities. By such standards these events couldn’t happen. Ever!”
“Researchers often become truly disturbed by phenomena which cannot be fitted into known scientific dogma, but a scientist never discards his evidence. Rather, the conscientious worker pays a homage to science by cataloging all results and, where necessary, elaborating new more inclusive theories. But the events related here were just too much.”
“Was I to believe that an inert wrist watch could perform as a radio in sending messages? No way! Watches told the time of day and nothing more. Even then you had to look at them.”
“Furthermore, if it did send messages like a radio, where was the radio receiver? And where was my neat time ordered cause and effect scientific world if the inert watch somehow enabled tuning into events lying yet in the future? This would be like watching the Superbowl struggle on TV three weeks before the game was even played. Impossible!”
It is amusing to watch Dr. Bill’s mind struggle to make the uncanny go away….
“A more comfortable argument is that Alex simply guessed that a man named John (a common enough name) with an old left leg injury (not an uncommon complaint) worked in a paramilitary group (lots of them around) at a place called Monmouth (England has a county so named), and that I’d meet him.”
“The argument feels spurious. It rings hollow and is unconvincing. But even if this premise were to be accepted, still further difficulties lie ahead. From where in creation and by what process was this particular John’s doubly unlisted telephone number conveyed into the awareness of my half asleep mind? It is certain that the most complex prognostication of contemporary neurophysiology can provide no comprehensible mechanism whereby I might have perceived these ten digits. On the other hand, my having written them down proved that I did perceive them.”
“Furthermore, the deepening dilemma would not be resolved even if the perceptive aspect of this enigma were to be explained. We remain in deeply troubled water because of a still more perplexing mystery.”
“Who sent the messages?”
Coincidence? Possible, I suppose, but, as Dr. Bill discusses, trying to write this off to coincidence feels like an act of irrational materialistic faith rather than sound reasoning. Helpers? I’d like to think so, whether it’s true or not.
If Helpers, why?
Sometimes I think Helpers or whoever/whatever they may be, just want to stimulate us. “There’s a nice lady or guy down there, lots of potential, but stuck in a mental belief rut, let’s make some sort of thing happen which won’t fit at all and so might awaken her or his curiosity a little…..”