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The Third Man Factor

Epigraph for T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land The explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton made a legendary escape from Antarctica in 1916 after his ship Endurance was trapped in and subsequently crushed by the ice of that unforgiving land. Shackleton and two of his men were on the final leg of their journey, having to cross an uncharted mountain range on South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic island, to reach help at a whaling station. During the crossing, each of the three men had the sense that there was another “presence” with them, helping them on the arduous journey. This fourth presence which inspired T.S. Eliot to include it in his 1922 poem, “The Waste Land,” changing the number to ask, “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” This experience became known among climbers and other explorers as the “third man factor” or “third man syndrome.”

Earlier this week I listened to CBC’s Linden MacIntyre on The Current interview John Geiger, author of The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments. The interview (MP3 Download) was a fascinating look at high-stress and near-death experiences where people have experienced the presence of an unknown person. Geiger states,

Many people who have survived life and death struggles have come forward to describe encounters with an incorporeal being who provided them with companionship, encouragement, guidance and hope, helping them to live. A good number of these cases involve people in extreme and unusual environments, such as the polar regions, alone at sea, or when climbing at high altitudes. However, other people, when confronted with personal stress under certain conditions, also encounter an unseen presence. In this book I have gathered together a large number of Third Man reports. I spoke to scores of people to try to understand what conditions are necessary to provoke the experience, how it affected them, and what explanations exist for the Third Man Factor. The book is my attempt to answer one question: “what is going on here?”

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between having this experience and religious conversion; people tend to draw an explanation from their background to make sense of it. There exists a scientific explanation based in stimulus between the two hemispheres of the brain, which suggests that it can be artificially stimulated, and that people having this experience are able to solve problems “beyond themselves”. It doesn’t follow, however, that scientifically-minded people will draw a psychological or physiological conclusion to explain it rather than a spiritual one. Although many theories exist, there is no definitive explanation. There may be some relationship to children who have “imaginary friends” or whose long-time spouse has died yet they continue to feel their presence.

I’m intentionally avoiding any reference to the “Footsteps” poem, but those of us with a religious background are most likely to view the experience as a divine presence, like Shackleton himself did. I’m intrigued by the fact that this is so widespread and that it doesn’t directly connect with conversion experiences. We might suggest that if this is a divine encounter, its purpose seems to be for the immediate temporal good of the person and not the goal of religious conversion as any sort of direct result. I’m certainly adding the book to my list of things I’d like to read. Curious to hear other people’s thoughts, though — have you had a “third man” experience of your own?

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

— T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land, lines 359-365.

6 Responses to “The Third Man Factor”

  1. Cobus Says:

    Should you try and interpret this theologically, understand it in a religious sense and note that it does not link with conversion experiences, thus understand it as a Godly care for the immediate needs, it opens up some interesting interpretation possibilities as “the God of the good and the evil, the faithful and the unfaithful”, God caring for humans regardless of religious orientation or even future religious orientation. Obviously this doesn’t say anything which theology hasn’t already said, but it’s just interesting…

  2. Petunia Says:

    The experiences described here occured during life and death moments, but what about other instances of experiencing a presence that isn’t associated with danger and stress?

  3. Brother Maynard Says:

    The book talks about those a little, but doesn’t focus on them as much. I think the primary example is imaginary childhood friends, which the book touches on in this context.

  4. Tom Carten Says:

    I was in radio many years ago as a dj and very gradually felt a call to ministry as an RC priest — very much to my surprise. At one point, I was seriously considering the issue, but was enduring some stress from people who were more religious than I (not hard).

    While praying about it, I heard a voice, as clear as someone across the room, saying, “I will be with you through this. Do not fear.” Scared me half to death. I do not believe that God comes down and talks to people, nor do I believe that angels suddenly appear with messages. I’m just a regular disc jockey who feels The Call.

    Some time later, I was in a church where a friend was being ordained. Same deal: during the ceremony, I heard this distinct, church-filling voice saying, “What are you waiting for?” I thought everyone heard it, but nobody moved. I started making arrangements to attend college (necessary before seminary) and break the news to management at the radio station.

    I’m 30 years in ministry and, yeah, radio is still part of my work. Gets in your blood.

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