The Wonder of the Uncanny

“Shallow men believe in luck.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a sociologist, I teach college students to think logically, to make connections, to observe closely, to keep careful notes, and to seek and confirm facts. But I also teach them that sociology is an art form, as the conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet, so beautifully maintained; and I teach them that as artists they must use their imaginations, as the radical leftist sociologist, C. Wright Mills, so cogently argued.

Like the psychologist, William James, I know that there are varieties of religious and psychological experience that are real but beyond explanation. James himself experienced an extraordinary one on a camping trip on Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks in 1898. He referred to it as his “Walpurgis Nacht” (Witches’ Night). James, a radical empiricist, was fascinated with these experiences (experience and experiment coming from the same root, the Latin, experiri, v. to try; thus also an essay, to try) and recounted many examples of exceptional experiences while still using his critical acuity to try to explain them, to interpret the facts. He was not very successful in this endeavor, yet he insisted that these “surprises” that burst into people’s lives were very real and significant, despite their uncanny nature.

Carl Jung used the term synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) to refer to these experiences where cracks open in our normal reality and we are shocked into a new awareness of our existence. He maintained that “it is only our ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could ever exist.” He didn’t think such experiences were common, but he argued that they were very real and had the power to change to the core those who underwent them, if one is open to receive the gift.

Both James and Jung were criticized as kooks by those who maintain that science, and science alone, is the sine qua non for understanding reality. Of course this debate is co-terminus with modernity and science’s place as our privileged way of knowing. This would include those who maintain that sociology and psychology are strict sciences, this writer not being one of them.

What follows are two reports of uncanny experiences — two October surprises if you will — appropriate or not for the Halloween season. Let me recount them for you and then see what we can make of them.

I am teaching a course on political assassinations; specifically those of JFK, MLK, and RFK. The first part of the course is devoted to President Kennedy’s assassination. On Wednesday last, the class was discussing aspects of the book they are reading, the great JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass. The topic of conversation centered on the media’s complicity in the cover-up of the truth, with special focus on newspaper coverage. It was a very animated class with the students passionately engaged.

Later that evening I received an email from one of the students, a very fine and responsible young man, who asked to meet with me. I sensed urgency in his request. He wanted to meet the next day, but since I would not be on campus then, we met the following day. He entered my office with a large package and told me the following story.

Being a Resident Adviser, he rarely leaves the campus to go home, even though he lives but a short distance from the college. On the day of our Wednesday class, however, he impulsively decided to drive home shortly after the class ended. Upon arriving, he was greeted by his mother’s boyfriend, who was taking down a wall that separated two rooms, the outer of which had been his grandfather’s where he entertained his men friends, playing cards, etc. His grandfather, to whom he was close, had died five years ago when he was 79. He had been a U.S. Marine in Korea. The boyfriend was having a problem with something stuck inside the wall that he couldn’t extract. It looked like plastic. Jake was able to get his hand inside and, after much tugging, was able to pull it out. It wasn’t plastic but was an old canvas newspaper delivery bag filled with something. Jake opened it and there was a note addressed to him. “Jake, you are the only one who will understand this.” Inside was a very large scrapbook filled with plastic protected newspapers and clippings from 1963, all about the JFK assassination. Jake was floored. He had talked to his grandfather about war and the grandfather had mentioned the JFK case, but they had never discussed it. The wall where the bag was hidden was built when Jake was a toddler. When Jake asked his grandmother about it, she said she had no idea, but that the grandfather was very interested in the JFK murder and never believed the government’s story about Lee Harvey Oswald. She added that she never paid any attention to him on the subject and had no interest. Jake, however, has been startled into a heightened state of attention.

Here is the second report. When I was in high school, a Jesuit one in NYC, the Assistant Principal (Dean of Discipline) was a handsome, steely-eyed priest named Fr. Walter E. Brown, S.J. He emanated an aura of strength, and no one wanted to do anything that would have him stare you down with those blue-gray eyes and gesture with his index finger to come to him. You knew you were in trouble. Yet he was eminently fair and I knew that and respected him. Some of my friends felt the same way, but others just feared him. I was a passionate kid, whose fierceness and anger could show up on the basketball court, basketball being my obsession. Once my parents attended a parents’ night at the school, Regis High School, and Fr. Brown told them I would be all right once I “got the world off my shoulders.” I always wondered what he meant. Years later it became clear to me, but that is another matter. My father became very friendly with him since they would talk at the basketball games, sometimes sharing a beer in the coach’s office. I came to feel very strongly that Fr. Brown was my protector, that he liked me and always had my best interests at heart. He became an iconic figure to me. After high school my older sister and I sought his counsel and also attended his mother’s funeral. The last time I saw him was when I was in college and my father asked me to attend a weekend retreat with him that was being run by Father Brown, who by then had left the school and was conducting retreats at Mt. Manresa Retreat House on Staten Island, NY. That was in the early summer of 1963.

Over the years I learned through the grapevine that he had left the Jesuits, married, had moved far away to Alaska where he taught, and had died many years before. But all through those many decades I would regularly dream about him, and in those dreams he was always my guide and protector. I would always awake from those dreams strengthened, feeling his presence beside me.

The years passed but the dreams continued. Not very long ago, on a dreary grey Sunday afternoon, there was a used-book sale at the local college. I hadn’t gone as I usually did because I had tired of looking at books surrounded by the pushy avidity of book buyers jostling each other. But I decided to go before the sale ended in the next hour. I told my wife I would stay there for no longer than fifteen minutes. When I got there, there was no one around except for a college student sitting at a table waiting for customers. The room with the books was a complete shambles with thousands of books scattered across tables and on the floor. I found the chaotic sight dispiriting, and so quickly walked down one table where I grabbed two books because I knew my deceased father really liked one and whose author was the subject of the other, a biography of G. K. Chesterton by Hillaire Belloc. The small paperback was one of Chesterton’s series of Fr. Brown existential detective mysteries, books my father was always trying to get me to read but I never had. I grabbed the books, gave the girl fifty cents and drove home, where I threw the books on the floor inside the door by a bookcase. I told myself I’d take a look in the morning, but I was really not too interested and had just gotten them because of the connection to my father.

The next morning I first opened the Fr. Brown mystery and the connection to my dream-world guide, Fr. Brown, S.J., struck me. Then I opened the Belloc biography of Chesterton to a page where there was a bookmark. It was a prayer card that read, “Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve, etc.” I flipped it over and on the other side it read “A Souvenir of My Annual Retreat at Mt. Manresa, 1963.”

The card was signed at the bottom in blue ink: Walter E. Brown, S.J.

I, also, was startled into a heightened state of attention.

So, if one accepts that these reports are truthful and accurate — as I attest they are — is there any way to explain them without saying that Jake and I are insane, or, to put it nicely, just deluded kooks? Or is the facile explanation to say that these things happen all the time; are commonplace; and therefore to dismiss them?

Neither explanation gets us very far; nor does surrendering our critical faculties to delusion and superstition. Furthermore, in both cases, we are not dealing with inner psychological experiences that can’t be empirically corroborated. Both incidents actually happened in the physical world; there are witnesses to attest to them; there is an objective reality to the objects that Jake and I discovered.

Or did they discover us?

How we interpret these “findings” is the heart of the matter. The issue is their meaning, if any. Can they be understood in any objective sense, or does their meaning and understanding remain the sole existential prerogative of the experiencer; or are they beyond understanding? If Jake and I read significant meaning into them, is this just poetic fancy; are we like two mystic poets using words to conjure up a spell that sounds beautiful but is romantic gibberish?

Jake and I received gifts from the unknown. We were awe-struck. We were surprised by wonder. A crack opened in our normal realities and we received unsought messages. We know that.