Last night my wife and I spent several hours engaged in stimulating conversation with six friends. The eight of us covered many topics. When we turned to miracles and psychic phenomena, our discussion got passionate.
Usually it’s considered that religious/spiritual people have the most passion about their beliefs. For example, “The Passion of the Christ.” But scientific sorts can be equally passionate.
Our group included a Ph.D. chemist, a Ph.D. computer scientist, and a scientifically-minded attorney—each of whom forcefully argued for the primacy of reason, well-designed experiments, and laws of nature that aren’t arbitrary or capricious.
They didn’t put much stock in personal stories that two other group members shared. One woman told about a dream that included details which seemed to foreshadow the death of a friend’s son. When she learned about the circumstances of the death, her reaction was: “Oh my God! That’s just what happened in my dream.”
Another woman told about going to a psychic on the day her father had died. Upon meeting the psychic, he said: “I feel the presence of a loved one surrounding you.” Then he slapped his chest several times and told her, “Something about the heart. Do you know someone with heart problems?”
The woman was convinced that the psychic knew about her father’s death—from a heart attack. However, I couldn’t resist pointing out to her that heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country, so almost everyone has a relative who had, or has, a serious heart problem.
Exposes of supposed psychics point out that they often use general leading comments like “something about the heart” to begin a reading, then work off the response to give the illusion of other-worldly knowledge (for example, if the woman had replied with “Why, yes, someone just died!” the psychic might have said “A parent or grandparent, perhaps?” since older relatives are more likely to have died than younger).
Befitting my Libra-ness, I held to the middle ground on this question of the reality of psychic phenomena, along with the two other members of the group who didn’t clearly fall into either the “strong believer” or “strong skeptic” camps. I’m probably more of a skeptic than a believer, since I’m not aware of any solid scientific evidence that supports the validity of ESP, prayer, and such.
One of my fellow middle-of-the-roaders told a compelling true story of her own about The Boots at the Top of the Stairs. At the risk of mangling it somewhat, here’s my remembered version.
The woman and her husband had moved into a new house. They’d been told by neighbors that a man had died a disturbing death in the basement, which was entered by a door off of the “mudroom”—a place to take off muddy or wet shoes before going from the garage into the house.
One dark and rainy night she needed to go into the basement to put some clothes in the dryer. Her children were asleep. Her husband wasn’t home. She always felt that the basement seemed creepy, as if something awful had happened there. Which, from the story she’d been told, had.
That night she didn’t want to spend any more time in the basement than necessary. Especially after hearing a thump. Startled, she froze and looked around. “Must just be the wind blowing a limb off a tree,” she thought, turning to go up the stairs.
Then she froze again. Someone was standing in the mudroom! She could see a pair of tall rubber boots facing down into the basement. Her angle of vision was such that no more of the person could be seen, just those terrifying boots at the top of the stairs where none had been before.
The children! Suddenly she realized that the entity —whether alive, dead, or undead— was between her and them. Her motherly protective instinct overcame her terror. She grabbed a baseball bat that belonged to her son. She started to climb the stairs, ready to do battle.
And saw…her own boots that she had taken off a few hours ago, but had completely forgotten about.
It was a good story, well-told. The woman spoke after the two believers had related their own tales, and disguised her theme of psychic phenomena de-bunking until the very end of the story. I was entirely ready to believe that she had seen a ghostly vision.
Which turned out to have an entirely normal physical explanation: forgotten boots placed there by her own hand. Fitting. Many of our fears, whether of this world or the world to come, are of our own making.
Fear of God. Fear of the Devil. Fear of stark reality. Fear of breaking a commandment. Fear of getting on the wrong side of religious authority. Fear of speaking the truth. Fear of going our own way. Fear of what others will say. Fear of climbing the stairs and facing our fears.