Third Man Syndrome

While doing some research recently I came across the idea of The Third Man Factor or Third Man Syndrome. It’s where people report situations where a presence, such as a spirit, provides comfort or support during a traumatic experience.

In John Geiger’s (American-born Canadian author) 2009 book “The Third Man Factor” he recounts stories of people who had this experience. The term is used where people in dire moments feel a presence helping them, comforting them or giving them courage. Some people liken it to a visit from a guardian angel, dead relative while some report an unknown presences. It has been reported by a wide variety of people from firefighters to extreme sportsmen to arctic explorers. This entity actually appears to people visually as well as auditory so that the effect is that an actual person is there.

In the foreword to The Third Man Factor book, Vincent Lam (Canadian writer and medical doctor) tells of his own Third Man experience during a highly stressful period while crammed to get into medical school. He wrote, “My visit from a Third Man, whom I believe to be my guardian angel, occurred within a personal moment of crisis, rather than in the gruelling physical circumstances described by many of this book’s subjects. This sits well with John’s [Geiger] argument that the Third Man likely occurs more commonly than we recognize, and is not limited to extreme travel and exploration”.

Sir Ernest Shackleton (Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer), in his 1919 book South, described his belief that an incorporeal companion joined him and his men during the final leg of his 1914–1917 Antarctic expedition. He wrote, “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three”. This admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences.

T. S. Eliot’s (Anglo American Poet and Playwright) 1922 modernist poem The Waste Land were inspired by Shackleton’s experience. One passage says, “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?”

Emotional intelligence has highlighted the importance of “the capacity to soothe oneself”. This has led to the scientific explanations that consider the phenomenon an unconscious coping mechanism. But regardless of what you think these phenomena are, guardian angel, ancestor or a self-soothing coping mechanism I find it fascinating.

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