wings
Photo: Nigel Cox
"I was desperate," said Jean. "My husband had just left me, and I couldn't see any way to raise my kids or pay the bills. I'd collapsed in a suicidal heap, when I looked up and saw my bedroom full of angels. Guardian angels!" Jean toasted the memory with her teacup.

This conversation took place more than 20 years ago, when I was in graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn't know Jean that well, but she didn't seem like a wackadoo. I'd interviewed her for my PhD dissertation on women and social change, and she had recounted how, after her divorce, she'd started a successful small business. All very rational. It was after the interview, as I was stashing my notebook, that Jean leaned forward and said, "Actually...can I tell you what really happened?"

I tucked Jean's "guardian angel" story into my brain's Weird Anomaly file and forgot about it, until a few months later when I was categorizing my subjects. Looking at the "most satisfied" group, I was startled to realize that like Jean, almost all of these women reported experiencing something miraculous. Many of these were small blessings: helpers showing up at just the right moment, or "hearing" guidance from a quiet inner voice. Others were more dramatic. Two women believed they'd been spontaneously healed from serious illness, and several, like Jean, thought they'd experienced some sort of divine presence.

I was alarmed. How could I write about these women without either belittling their private experiences or being forcibly ejected from graduate school? I scurried to the library, seeking methods for studying wacky beliefs. I wasn't disappointed. That day I learned about "bracketing," a handy little tool that allows anthropologists to contemplate another culture's stories without accepting them naively (thus becoming vulnerable to any guru who tells them to put cabbage in their underwear and bathe with plugged-in toasters) or utterly discounting them (thus embracing the arrogant assumption that we currently understand everything in the universe).

How "Seeing" Is Believing

The movie Avatar is based on a reasonable facsimile of anthropological bracketing. In the film, a faraway planet populated by large blue people is invaded by materialistic humans who don't share one iota of the blue folks' tree-worshipping, kumbaya-singing worldview. But one small group of social scientists puts aside earthly customs, learns the locals' language, and participates in their culture. The researchers maintain the nonjudgmental stance that any belief system, including the Big Blues', might (who knows?) be as valid as any other. That's bracketing.

This practice—stepping outside your belief system into what Buddhists call "don't know mind"—feels frighteningly uncertain. Most people prefer clinging like Velcro to their established version of reality. Consider the physician who, in early 2010, pronounced Kate and David Ogg's newborn son Jamie dead at birth. Kate held Jamie's little body for two hours, at which point he started breathing, eating, and grabbing people's fingers. The doctor refused to come see, repeatedly sending word that Jamie's movements were "just reflexes." Today Jamie Ogg is an active 9-month-old. If this goes on, his doctor may eventually confirm that he's alive.

My point is that perceptual bias can affect nut jobs and scientists alike. If we hold too rigidly to what we think we know, we ignore or avoid evidence of anything that might change our mind. And by "our mind," I mean my own mind. Although I intended to "bracket" the miracle stories I heard during my dissertation research, a big part of me actually assumed they were false. I understood how the world worked—after all, I'd lived in it a whopping 24 years.

And then, as I hit the quarter-century mark, I began experiencing things that pushed me to rethink the way I looked at the world. The first involved being trapped in a burning building: I was dragged half-conscious out of a smoke-filled stairwell by someone who left before I could catch my breath and thank him, or even see him. Television news videos of the fire showed me emerging from the building—but my rescuer didn't appear on film.

At the time I was expecting a baby, and the pregnancy seemed to lend me strange abilities. I could see, vividly, things that were happening to friends and family far away. I had visions of my future that later proved accurate. Once, when I was sick and alone, I felt unseen hands comforting me physically. I confided what was happening to me to my friends, and most were kind but embarrassed, just as I'd been when Jean told me about her guardian angels. I could understand that—I was terrified myself. Mentally, I felt like a violently shaken snow globe, my beliefs drifting around loose, flaky, and upside down. I worried that if I truly suspended my disbelief in miracles, even momentarily, even under the principles of bracketing, that I'd never get it back.

Which, I admit, is kind of what happened.

Next: When only the irrational seems rational