As a nondenominational independent healthcare chaplain, John McNally is hired to help people face the emotional maelstrom of catastrophic illness and imminent death.
"They're terrified," he told me in an interview yesterday. "Even healthy individuals in this country avoid talking about death," and once it becomes imminent "they're scared as hell -- whether they think it's going to be 'lights out, show's over' or whether they're imagining hellfire. Then there's the whole issue of loss. The dying imagine all that they must leave behind. Survivors ask: How can I even live without my husband?"
But McNally believes in a fabulous afterlife -- evinced by tens of thousands of personal accounts of near-death experiences recorded all over the world over thousands of years. "If we were talking about a couple hundred accounts, it wouldn't have the weight that it carries," he says. His view is gaining ground steadily as more and more research is being devoted to the intersections between science and spirituality, through outfits such as the International Association for Near Death Studies.
No two NDEs are exactly alike, McNally says, but some basic themes recur: People who have been clinically dead or were otherwise extremely close to losing their lives report having entered tunnels or fields of light and undergoing a "life review," in which the individual suddenly re-experiences his or her entire past history.
"They say it was a learning experience," McNally says. "They say that during the life review, they h ad a sense of being asked two questions: What knowledge have you gained in this lifetime? And how loving have you been?"
During the life review, he explains, they re-experience everything they ever did. In a kind of hyperspeed that defies our earthly sense of linear time and space, they re-experience it not only from their own perspective, looking out from their own eyes, but also from a few feet away as if observing themselves in a film, and also from the perspectives of all those people with whom they ever interacted, as if they were those people. "It's more than empathy," McNally says. "They suddenly know what those moments felt like for others, and they feel incredible joy or bliss or gratitude or hurt."
At this point in the NDE, he explains, they realize that lovingkindness is what matters most in the world. And then ... they're yanked back from death to life.
"We don't hear from the ones who don't come back," says McNally, who will give a free lecture on the transformative power of near-death experiences tonight at Berkeley, California's Northbrae Church. The event will also feature speakers describing their own near-death experiences.
One key feature of what McNally calls the "information" received during NDEs is that we never simply cease to exist.
"Not only are the dead not gone, but they're experiencing a wonderful new life. From so many accounts we hear that it's amazingly wonderful over there, so much more wonderful than it is here that a lot of people are really pissed off when they're brought back." Relationships with those who die "aren't ending. Those people are alongside me in spirit and I'll get to be with them again someday. This turns our fear of dying on its ear. Instead of this horrible disaster way of thinking, we should be willing to let this information in and let it help us: During near-death experiences, people say they felt more at home and more alive than they ever felt in this life. They describe heightened senses, beauty, and color so vivid they can't even find words for it, and a depth of unconditional love that absolutely blows their socks off. So ... what's to lose? There is wonderful stuff in this life. I love my wife. I love the fact that we just bought a home. I love my friends and family. So I'm not ready to go jump in front of a truck right now. But whenever my time comes, if that isn't the next great adventure, then what is? I know I'm going from what's pretty good to what's fabulous."