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TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 8

OH WOW: STEVE JOBS AND HIS PARTING GIFTS

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We all know the basic bio: Apple mastermind Steve Jobs changed the way we relate to every manner of computer and gadget, marrying form, functionality and ease of use in a way unlike any electronics company before. The result—the iPod, iPhone and the company’s sleek computer line—are now cultural touchstones, changing the way we relate to information, entertainment and each other.

Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s revealing biography, Steve Jobs,  we now know that Jobs was a control freak and a monster of a boss. He drove his charges crazy, asking for things they didn’t think were possible. As a result, those same employees achieved more than they had ever dreamed. But when Jobs passed away last fall, after a long battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, there were new lessons to take from his life, both of which land in the realm of Fringe-ology.

For roughly the first nine months after Jobs was diagnosed with cancer in October, 2003, he pursued an alternative treatment regimen. He even declined an operation that, statistically speaking, promised him at least 10 more years of life.

When he finally did consent to surgery, in July, 2004, his cancer had advanced to his liver. The media gossip website Gawker quotes a specialist in Jobs’s form of cancer lamenting the corporate wizard’s decision-making: “In my series of patients, for many subtypes [of this form of cancer], the survival rate was as high as 100% over a decade… As many as 10% of autopsied persons in the general population have been reported to have one of these without ever having had any symptoms during their life.”

I have always maintained an uneasy relationship with alternative medicine as a whole. I don’t believe that all these therapies are as worthless as the skeptical community would have us believe. Acupuncture is often dismissed as outright quackery here in the west. But the record is mixed. (See this Mayo clinic roundup, for the list of pain-related uses of acupuncture. There is also evidence it reduces the symptoms associated with chemotherapy.) “Aromatherapy” is also a constant target of “quack” watchers. But a quick search at PubMed—a U.S. National Institutes of Health website—reveals multiple studies that show aromatherapy has a positive effect on anxiety and, in some cases, post-operative pain. The Mayo Clinic says research on aromatherapy is thin, but acknowledges there is evidence of some benefit for people suffering from anxiety or depression. But the tendency of skeptics to overstate their case isn’t reason for believers in alternative medicine to overstate their own.

The wisest course of action, it seems, is to pursue alternative therapies as additions to the most well researched, evidence based treatments. (Here in Philadelphia, actually, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, one of the most advanced partnerships between alternative and mainstream medicine is underway.)

Jobs, sadly, reminded us in the most final possible terms that the quality of the information we’re using is critical. So take the lesson that tragedy offers to heart: Look at the available research, and engage in your own care—pro-actively and without prejudice. If Jobs had looked at all the data, free from his own biases, he would almost certainly still be with us today.

Of course, Jobs also left us something else when he passed away, something we first learned of through the eulogy delivered for him by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. The New York Times published the text of Simpson’s talk, in which she describes Jobs’ final days in unsparing terms—at turns romantic and bitter. But it was the final passage that got everyone buzzing, relating the very end of Jobs’ storied life:

Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

   He seemed to be climbing.

   But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

   Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

   Steve’s final words were:

   “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

Some speculated that Jobs was only reacting to the feelings of love he felt for those closest to him. Others (including me) pointed out that Simpson—a novelist, after all—undoubtedly chose her words very carefully. And she noted that he looked “over their shoulders past them” before uttering those last words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I contacted Simpson, to see if she did intend to suggest that Jobs had a deathbed vision—a glimpse of what’s next. She declined to be interviewed.

For the record, however, judging by the research I did for Fringe-ology, if Jobs did see something fantastic on his journey toward death, Simpson’s account seems to fit with the existing lore on the subject.

The deathbed vision is a staple in paranormal circles. In Fringe-ology, I relate the story of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychologist who wrote On Death and Dying—the book that gave life to the hospice movement.

Kubler-Ross repeatedly encountered terminally ill patients who claimed to see deceased loved ones in their hospital rooms. She initially resisted these stories, failing even to take notes. But the stories kept coming. As her research partner, the reverend Mwalimu Imara, told me: “We weren’t looking for this. It was just happening, again and again, to us.”

Over time, they relented. They decided that if their project was to chronicle the fears, wishes, hopes, needs and experiences of the dying, they needed to write it all down, no matter how strange it might seem. As their work continued, Kubler-Ross and Imara started filling filing cabinet drawers with these unexpected tales. In fact, patients who had been resuscitated told them stories of what we now call Near Death Experiences (NDEs), years before these stories became popularly known.

When it came time to write On Death and Dying, in 1968, Kubler-Ross included an entire chapter on the paranormal subjects of NDEs and deathbed visions in her original manuscript. But, as I chronicle in Fringe-ology, she ultimately decided against sending this outlandish material to her publisher, lest they deem she’d lost the plot. It was only years later, after the phrase “Near Death Experience” was coined and popularized, that she began sharing these stories at all.

Intriguingly, in the context of Steve Jobs, Kubler-Ross noted a stark difference between what she termed a “deathbed visitation” or vision and a mere hallucination.

Patients suffering from some form of dementia or drug-addled state are unable to understand or coherently interact with the objective, verifiable world around them. Patients Kubler-Ross described as having deathbed visitations, however, remained lucid. What this means is that they described people and things that weren’t visible in the room. They even carried on conversations with these unseen visitors. But they were also fully aware of their surroundings and able to continue interacting with the objective world, without fail.

In researching Fringe-ology, I found these reports remain prevalent among hospice professionals today. In the case of Steve Jobs, if he did have a deathbed vision, it’s far from the most spectacular. But it does fit the standard template: the dying man, encountering the material world before him and another one besides.

We should acknowledge that skeptics would scarcely spend any time on this subject, rebutting any idea that Jobs had a deathbed vision and positing that all such reports are the product of dying, deluded people, unable to discriminate any longer between hallucination and reality.

Believers might simply take such stories as evidence for an afterlife.

Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, offered the New York Post the following opinion: “Well, I’m glad—as with everything in Steve’s life—he leaves us with a slightly inspiring mystery.”

I don’t envy Isaacson, a terrific writer and researcher, who has likely never looked at any paranormal research, being put in the position of answering for Jobs’ last words. Reading the entire Post item, you can almost feel his discomfort as he tries to find some convenient exit. That said, I don’t think I’m being too unfair to Isaacson to say that his response is “slightly spot on,” while also being “slightly off.”

What are we to make of Jobs’ final words?

Well, in my opinion, no one should run from—or be embarrassed by—any hope occasioned by Jobs’s last statement. And the mystery of what awaits us—the suggestion of new lands beyond the veil—is more than “slightly inspiring.”

The way I think of it, Steve Jobs left us one last gift on his way out, a final, useful tool, which operated according to the same elegant aesthetic that marked his products: Monsosyllables, two words, repeated three times, capturing one of the great existential mysteries of humankind’s existence—and boundless possibilities.  Its function is merely to instill in us an appropriate sense of wonder. And it worked for me. In fact, the first time I read this passage, the day Simpson’s eulogy for her brother appeared, it put me immediately in mind of one of my favorite stories that never made it into Fringe-ology.

I spoke to a few hospice workers along the way, one of whom had read On Death and Dying but was unfamiliar with Kubler-Ross’s more metaphysical research. She, too, had encountered strange happenings. She, too, drew a sharp dividing line between patients suffering from hallucinations and those buoyed by what she took to be visions.

In most instances, she said, when a patient was consumed by a vision, she allowed them to narrate what they were seeing as they wished. But once, an old man to whom she felt particularly close had asked her to remain silent as he locked his eyes on a far corner of the room. He seemed pleased, excited even, and engaged someone or something in conversation.

She only saw the same old room.

“Hey,” she broke in, “what is it? What are you seeing?”

The old man glanced at her briefly. “Oh honey,” he said. “I could tell you. But you wouldn’t believe me.”

Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. All the entries will be posted here, though many will run for a few days exclusively at The Daily Grail. You can also follow me on twitter @stevevolk