Beginning in the mid 1970s, a group of American researchers launched a new branch of study of what most people know as the near-death experience (NDE). Thanks to modern resuscitation technologies, increasing numbers of people worldwide are periodically brought back from the brink of death. A significant percentage report having extraordinary experiences that convince them of life after death. In my opinion, the NDE is to psychology what quantum physics is to physics, a shocking discovery and a fascinating mystery.
One of the researchers, the psychologist Dr. Kenneth Ring, has published a wide-ranging collection of essays of great human interest, enigmatically titled Reflections in a Glass Eye: Essays in the Time of COVID. (Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble) The essays are witty and funny while at the same time covering matters of weighty import. Many were written during a period of temporary relief from bouts of extremely painful spinal stenosis.
The opening chapters describe Ring’s encounter with LSD, comparable, he writes, to the near-death experience: “ . . . at some point for a moment outside of time I . . .experienced an inrushing of the most intense and overwhelming rapturous LOVE and knew instantly that this was the real world, that the universe . . .was stitched in the fabric of this love, and that I was home” (p.8). This led to meeting Raymond Moody who wrote Life After Life and his own research into NDEs.
Meeting one woman who had an NDE, Ring writes, noting how so many deny the authenticity of the experience, “but what I remember most vividly from this interview is how this woman looked. She radiated peace, serenity, acceptance. . . .She lives everyday as a gift” (p.18). Meanwhile Ring took another step into the psychedelic realm and with some hesitation plunged into experiences induced by ketamine whose swirling colors and transcendence of his ego was like no other experience.
Between his psychedelic adventures and near-death research, Ring was able to make a statement about meeting his deceased father, that when his time comes: “I will again find myself and will feel his love once more, only more intensely and with the greatest joy” (p. 68). The touching details leading up to that statement you’ll find in the chapter.
From there Ring moves on to a chapter on animals. Many of us like Ring grow up in circumstances ill-suited to having even a dog or cat for a pet, but in his later life woke up to the inner life of animals. He rightly notes the obtuseness of philosophers and scientists who until recently mostly assumed that animals were machinelike in their nonconsciousness. Didn’t any of these hyper-intellectuals ever play with a dog or socialize with a moody cat? Ring makes up for his early standoffishness toward our animal kin; not only does he make the case for their inner life, he tells a bunch of stories that show that some of our pets apparently have afterlives. It would be sheer hubris to suppose that only human sentience survives into the next world, if survival is a fact of nature.
Now unlike his late-blooming love of our fellow critters, Ring has always been a lover of classical music, and writes about many classical musicians I never heard of that I took careful note of. One of his stories surprised me in this section that was about the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who came from rich family of musicians and music lovers, including his brother Paul, the famous pianist who lost one of his arms and inspired several great composers to write piano concertos for the left hand, i.e., Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Britten, etc.
The reader will discover just how active and wide-ranging Ring’s mind is in the three remaining sections of essays, one devoted to Covid with a striking essay on the history and devastating nature of smallpox and one about the achievements of Anthony Fauci. Continuing with a near-poetic evocation of the mass death, dislocations of consciousness, and Trumpian turpitude of 2020, he provides two touching chapters titled ‘The Silent Epidemic of Our Times’ and ‘All the Lonely People.’
Except for the frontline workers, the pandemic has forced people everywhere into prolonged periods of isolation. Ring gets to the pathos of his theme in a story about a 92 year old woman and her grateful relationship with Jennie her ‘cat’ who in fact was a robot. The point he makes is that 43 percent of the elderly in America suffer from loneliness and quotes all sorts of evidence that social isolation is associated with premature death and the risk of all sorts of disease including dementia, depression, heart disease, stroke, etc. Ring states that amid all this: “I realized I’m not afraid to die; I’m now afraid of living too long!”
This in turn leads him to argue that people ought to have the right to terminate their own lives in a way that’s efficient and convenient. He does grant that being elderly one is still capable of enjoying life, even the pleasures associated with youth such as sex. But he does insist that for those who wish, the door to one’s final exit ought to be open. Given that a certain mass of highly suggestive evidence for postmortem existence now exists—in part thanks to the research of Ring and many others—the freedom to choose one’s time of departure may not be altogether a depressing choice.
The last section of the book is titled ‘The Women in My Life.” This may not be altogether what the reader might expect, but in any case I will leave those last essays for the reader to enjoy without my comments or paraphrases. It will be enough to say that a man who spent much of his professional life exploring the mystery of death leaves us with a moving message about the triumph of love.