Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
The Angel Effect
We Are Never Alone
By John Geiger

Book Excerpt

In 2008, I experienced something extraordinary at a moment of great pain, something that has altered the way I think about the world and has given me first-hand insight into a profound mystery.

It happened to me when I had nearly completed writing The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible, and brought the phenomenon of what scientists call the sensed presence vividly to life. That book arose from my growing realization—gleaned from my own experiences in the Arctic, my conversations with explorers and field scientists, as well as from reading the published accounts of explorers—that people under enormous stress, sometimes at the edge of death, often experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to survive. Climbers refer to it as the 'third man'.

I assembled a trove of such stories, and investigated religious, psychological and neurological explanations for the phenomenon. In the process, I also published a scholarly study, "The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments", with Professor Peter Suedfeld, a renowned expert of the psychological effects of exploration who has also advised NASA.

Suedfeld and I identified four indisputable facts about the sensed presence, notably that they occur to otherwise mentally normal, physically healthy individuals, they arise in stressful situations, they serve as a coping resource in that they aid the individual's efforts to survive, and that, despite various theories, their source remains a mystery.

It is far greater than the simple feeling that we all sometimes have when alone at night or when walking down an alley, that someone is there. Various reductive explanations have been offered, and while many of those indeed may play some role, none of them comes anywhere near capturing the richness and profundity of the experience, which person after person describes as among the most important of their lives. Peter Suedfeld and I wrote of the need to better understand the "dramatic helpfulness of the sensed presence, which includes not only encouragement, but also factual information …and, on occasion, physical intervention."

That study, and The Third Man Factor, hove closely to the view that you had to be astride Everest, or engaged in an equally harrowing pursuit—such as those undertaken by solo sailors, polar explorers, and astronauts—to experience the phenomenon. It worked wonderfully as a way to introduce the radical idea. But in fact, it is not the case that explorers and adventures are the sole recipients of such interventions. Far from it.

I opened The Third Man Factor with the experience of Ron diFrancesco, the last person to escape the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, who told me that he survived that day because of the help of an angel. DiFrancesco was just going about his routine business when terror struck. He found himself trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell, above the point of impact of United Airlines Flight 175, his escape obstructed by flames and a collapsed wall. Other people were with him on a landing, some apparently unconscious, when he says an angel urged him to carry on. It addressed him by his first name, it gave him encouragement telling him, "Hey! You can do this."