'It’s a Wonderful Life' and other near-death experiences

A reminder that you are loved, that you have nothing to fear, that there’s nothing you can do wrong can have a life-transforming, health-inducing impact on your life. Photo: AP / Wonderful Life

LOS ALTOS, CA, December 19, 2012 – On Christmas Eve my wife and I will be enjoying our newest holiday tradition, watching Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, at the historic Stanford Theatre in nearby Palo Alto.

The movie is vintage Capra: A sentimental storyline, loveable characters, a clear distinction between good guys and bad and, of course, a happy ending. But despite its simplicity, the movie provides a powerful and much-needed reminder of what it takes to live a happy, healthy life. Perhaps that’s why so many of us like to watch it every year.

If you’ve seen it, you will recall that a crisis occurs when Bedford Falls resident, George Bailey, finds himself standing along a snow-covered bridge. His bank business having failed, his intent is to commit suicide by jumping into the icy river below. However, in an ironic turn of events, George finds himself jumping into the river, not to take his own life but to save the life of a man who appears to be drowning. We soon learn that this “man” is actually George’s guardian angel, Clarence, sent from heaven to save him.

In a plot reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Clarence sets out to show George what life in Bedford Falls would be like had he never been born. Of course, we soon learn that life would be horrible, prompting George to beg Clarence to let him live. His prayer is answered and (cue sappy music) everyone lives happily ever after.

Although I doubt it was Capra’s intent, It’s A Wonderful Life does a pretty good job of portraying the upside of what today might be called a near-death experience. Thanks to Clarence’s ability to put things into perspective, George soon finds himself in possession of a remarkable clarity of thought, a lot less stress, a happier family life and, by all appearances, a much healthier body.

While this account is purely fictional, a more recent – and true – near-death experience paints a similar if not more convincing picture.

In 2008 Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, spent seven days in a coma. During this time, the part of his brain that controls thought and emotion was totally inactive.

As he puts it in an article written for The Daily Beast, “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind – my conscious, inner self – was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility…. [A]s far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation….”

What transpired during those seven days within this “larger dimension of the universe” is nothing short of extraordinary: “flocks of transparent, shimmering beings;” “a sound, huge and booming” from above; a beautiful woman able to communicate without saying a word – an odyssey Dr. Alexander says was “as real or more real than any event in my life.”

But even more significant than this essentially sensory experience was a three-part message Dr. Alexander remembers being conveyed and committed to thought:

You are loved. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.

“[This] message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief,” he writes. “It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.”

Although he doesn’t say this in his article, my hunch is that it was this “crazy sensation of relief” that precipitated Dr. Alexander’s rapid and complete recovery from an obviously life-threatening condition.

Of course, it would be a shame for any us to have to wait until we’re at death’s door before reaping the benefits of such life-transforming insights; to know, deep down, that we are loved, that we have nothing to fear, that we can do no wrong or, in the case of George Bailey, to know that our lives really do make a difference.

But maybe we don’t have to.

Maybe it’s simply a matter of heading the words and wisdom of people like Jesus Christ who once said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

As I see it, it’s this “kingdom of God” – a phrase that, for me, describes a state of consciousness that includes the rather blissful sense that I’m being cared for, that I matter – that can have such a significant impact on our health and happiness.

Of course, we may need to be reminded of this every now and then. But whether this reminder comes from watching a classic movie, living through a real-life near-death experience, or simply saying a prayer in support of the fact that our lives include a lot more than meets the eye, its effect can’t help but be felt.

It worked for George Bailey. It worked for Dr. Alexander. It just might work for you, too.

Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at www.norcalcs.org.

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