Beyond Death: The Science of the Afterlife

TIME Inc.

If you’ve seen heaven, does that mean it exists?

This question is more than a mind-bender. For thousands of years, certain people have claimed to have actually visited the place that, Saint Paul promised, “no eye has seen … and no human mind has conceived,” and their stories very often follow the same narrative arc.

A skeptic, a rogue or an innocent suffers hardship or injury: he is hit on the head, he suffers a stroke, he sustains damage in a car crash or on the operating table. A feeling of disconnection comes over him, a sense of being “outside” himself. Perhaps he encounters an opening: a gate, a door, a tunnel. And then, all at once, he is being guided through other worlds that look and feel to him more “real” than the world in which he once existed. These realms are both familiar and strange, containing music that doesn’t sound like music and light brighter than any light, and creatures that may or may not be angels, and the familiar faces of loved ones lost as well as figures from history and sometimes—depending on the narrator—even Jesus himself. The tourist is agape. Words fail. He leaves reluctantly to reoccupy his body and this earth. But the experience changes him forever. Convinced as he is of a wholly different reality, he is calmer, more self-assured, determined to persuade the world of heaven’s truth. He tells his story to the masses. “Heaven is real!” he proclaims.

The Book of Enoch, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, tells a version of this story and so does the Book of Revelation, Christianity’s most foundational description of the sights and sounds of heaven. So do the medieval visionaries whose accounts were to the Middle Ages what reality TV is to the 21st century: “real” events marketed as popular entertainment (with an edifying Christian message thrown in). And despite—or perhaps because of—the increasing rationalism of our times, this narrative genre thrives today. Ninety Minutes in Heaven (2004), about a Christian pastor who ascended to God after a car wreck; Heaven Is for Real (2010), about a child who sees heaven during surgery; and Proof of Heaven, by a Duke-trained neurosurgeon who traveled to heaven in 2012, have all been bestsellers, all following the same storyline. The neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, said in Newsweek in 2012 that his experience convinced him that his consciousness (the soul, or the self) exists somehow separate from or outside the mind and can travel to other dimensions on its own. “This world of consciousness beyond the body,” he wrote, “is the true new frontier, not just of science but of humankind itself, and it is my profound hope that what happened to me will bring the world one step closer to accepting it.”

Tales like these are thrilling in part because their tellers hold the passionate conviction of religious converts: I saw it, so it must be true. According to a Gallup poll, about 8 million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience (NDE), and many of them regard this experience as proof of an afterlife—a parallel, spiritual realm, more real, many say, than this one. Raymond Moody, who wrote Life After Life in 1975, one of the first popular books about NDEs, told CNN in 2013 that among people who have had such experiences, conviction about an afterlife transcends the particulars of religion. “A lot of people talk about encountering a being of light,” he said. “Christians call it Christ. Jewish people say it’s an angel. I’ve gone to different continents, and you can hear the same thing in China, India and Japan about meeting a being of complete love and compassion.” Moody was one of the founders of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a group devoted to building global understanding of such experiences.

It’s an inversion, almost, of the old philosophical puzzle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you are certain that you saw something (or felt something or heard something), does it mean that it’s empirically proven? And if you are predisposed to want to see something, are you likelier to see it, the way Harry Potter saw his dear departed mother in Hogwarts’s magic mirror? And finally, if you see something while you are stressed or unconscious or traumatized in some way, does that circumstance delegitimize the veracity of your vision? This is the trouble with NDEs as a field of scientific study: you can’t have a control group. Most people on the brink of dying do die (and so cannot describe what that process is like), and those who survive approach the brink in such different ways—car accident, stroke, heart attack—that it’s impossible to compare their experiences empirically. But over the years, science has posited a number of theories about the connection between visions of heaven and the chemical and physical processes that occur at death.

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital and has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people (nuns and monks) who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. He believes the “tunnel” and the “light” that NDE-ers so frequently describe can be easily explained. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he points out. “That’s why you’d have a tunnel sensation.” If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last.

Newberg puts forward the following scenario, which he emphasizes is guesswork: When people die, two parts of the brain that usually work in opposition to each other act cooperatively. The sympathetic nervous system—a web of nerves and neurons that run through the spinal cord and spread to virtually every organ in the body—is responsible for arousal or excitement. It gets you ready for action. The parasympathetic system, with which the sympathetic system is entwined, calms you down and rejuvenates you. In life, the turning on of one system promotes the shutting down of the other. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you’re falling asleep. But in the brains of people having mystical experiences, and perhaps in death, both systems are fully “on,” giving a person a sensation both of slowing down, being “out of body,” and of seeing things vividly, including memories of important people and past events. It is possible, Newberg asserts—though not at all certain—that visions of heaven are merely chemical and neurological events that occur during death.

Since at least the 1980s, scientists have theorized that NDEs occur as a kind of physiological defense mechanism. In order to guard against damage during trauma, the brain releases protective chemicals that also happen to trigger intense hallucinations. This theory gained traction after scientists realized that virtually all of the features of an NDE—a sense of moving through a tunnel, an out-of-body feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, intense memories—can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilizer frequently used as a party drug. In 2000 a psychiatrist named Karl Jansen wrote a book called Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, in which he interviewed a number of recreational users. One of them described a drug trip in a way that might be familiar to Dante, or the author of Revelation. “I came out into a golden Light. I rose into the Light and found myself having an unspoken exchange with the Light, which I believed to be God … I didn’t believe in God, which made the experience even more startling. Afterwards, I walked around the house for hours saying ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ ”

For some scientists, however, purely scientific explanations of heavenly visions do not suffice. Emily Williams Kelly is a psychologist who works at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which treats the study of NDEs as legitimate science. Her résumé is impressive: she has degrees from Duke, the University of Virginia and the University of Edinburgh—not institutions one usually associates with the study of the supernatural or paranormal. Kelly has spent her career researching, as she puts it, “the interface between the brain and the mind.” Practically speaking, she interviews dying people and tries to find patterns among their similarities. Kelly believes the experiences of people who have had near-death visions demonstrate that consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases. (She would seem to provide some corroboration for Eben Alexander’s claims.) This theory, she argues, could suggest explanations for the afterlife: “If our conscious experience totally depends on the brain, then there can’t be an afterlife—when the brain is gone, the mind is gone. But it’s not that simple. Even when the brain seems to be virtually disabled, people are still having these experiences.”

What is she saying? That upon death, people really go to another realm? And that science can prove it? Kelly shrugs. NDEs “tell us to open our minds and think there may be a great deal more to mind and consciousness—that’s as far as I’m willing to go.”

When Alexander published his book in 2012, drawing on the work of Kelly and her husband, Edward, he drew derision, as he knew he would, from broad segments of the rationalist and scientific communities. Having fallen into a coma after contracting bacterial meningitis, he saw incredible things. “I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing,” he said in an interview, “millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them…[There were] waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them ‘angels,’ those arcs of light in the sky.” This experience convinced him beyond any doubt of the existence of a loving God and the ability of souls to travel to the realms where God lives. The idea of a godless universe “now lies broken at our feet, ” he wrote in his book. “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more than our physical brains as clear as I can.”

The rationalist author Sam Harris, who is also a neuroscientist, aimed a fierce critique at Alexander’s account of his NDE. On his blog, Harris wrote that while he had no particular convictions about the essence or origins of consciousness, he was quite sure Alexander’s argument was specious. No one’s cerebral cortex shuts down entirely during coma, Harris pointed out. Additionally, the doctor showed no understanding of the kinds of neurotransmitters that can be released by the brain during trauma, including one called DMT, which produces hallucinations. “Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about, ” Harris concluded.

My own concern is somewhat different, relating back to the tree-in-the-forest conundrum. I believe Alexander (and all the others who testify to having visited heaven) saw what he says he saw, but one person’s vision, seen during trauma, does not add up to proof. Further all the emphasis on Alexander’s scientific credentials that accompanied the marketing of his book is disingenuous and entirely beside the point: the veracity of a vision of heaven would have nothing to do with where one went to medical school.

Adapted from Visions of Heaven: A Journey Through the Afterlife, available wherever books are sold.

psychology

7 Things the Most Interesting People All Have in Common

Most Interesting Man Takes Land Mine Role
Boston Globe/Getty Images

I’ve posted a lot of research from experts on getting people to like you, being influential and having great conversations.

What’s the best way to use all this information to be more interesting?

1) First, Don’t Be Boring

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Look at it like the Hippocratic Oath of conversations: Do no harm.

We’re all terrible at realizing when we bore others because, well, we all think we’re just fascinating.

The #1 tip for never boring anyone comes from Scott Adams: Be brief, be positive.

If you’re always to the point and stay upbeat, it’s extremely hard for anyone to accuse you of being poor company.

But sometimes you do need to speak a little longer to make sure things don’t get stilted.

The Art of Civilized Conversation offers another good tip: Is anyone asking you questions about what you’re saying?

If not, maybe it’s time to end the story or ask the other person a question.

(More rapport building techniques are here.)

2) The Most Captivating People Are Often Good Listeners

Impressing people can be great but it can also devolve into status jockeying, one-upmanship and envy.

People love to talk about themselves and there are a dearth of good listeners.

Let the other person talk. It gives their brain as much pleasure as food or money:

Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money…

You can make an excellent impression by saying amazingly little. Ironically, the people we like the most often say the least.

(Learn how to listen like a hostage negotiator here.)

3) Talk About The Other Person’s Interests

This is straight from Dale Carnegie and if you’re not that socially adept, this is as straightforward as it gets.

Why struggle to guess what most people might find generically interesting?

Ask people what they’ve been up to or what their hobbies are. Then talk about that. You’re now 80% of the way there.

If you know about the subject the similarity will bond you.

If you don’t, ask them to explain and be a great listener as they talk about something they love.

(More on the science behind Dale Carnegie’s classic here.)

4) Have Three Good Stories

Comedians don’t just talk about anything when they’re onstage. They have their act rehearsed.

You don’t just trot into a job interview and say whatever’s on your mind.

Always have three good stories on hand that reliably entertain, inform or engage.

Another tip from Scott Adams: People are generally more interested in stories about people rather than things.

Drama, gossip and reality TV are successful for a reason. We all find human behavior fascinating.

On the other hand, most people don’t want to hear about the features on your new iPhone.

(More on how to tell good stories here.)

5) Don’t Forget Charisma

It’s not all about the words. Some people are engaging but if what they said was transcribed, it would be unimpressive.

When you’re speaking emotionally, the words only account for 7% of what get conveyed. Seven percent.

Voice tone and body language are far more important.

Via The Heart of Social Psychology: A Backstage View of a Passionate Science:

One often quoted study (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) found that of all the information conveyed to another person when we say something that is emotional (not informational), only 7 percent is contained in the actual meaning of the words we use.

Laugh. Smile. Be passionate. Gesture. Modulate your voice. Don’t just sweat the words.

(Here’s how to be charismatic.)

6) Be Somewhere Interesting

Got a say in where you’ll be at, as with a date or meeting?

Pick someplace stimulating. Context matters.

In general, we’re lousy about realizing where our feelings are coming from.

Research shows excitement from any source is often associated with the person you’re with — even if they’re not the cause of it.

Why do people find musicians so captivating? The music and the crowd stimulates emotions — and we viscerally associate those with the band.

MIT Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely recounts a relevant study he did:

Why does this happen? Ariely thinks it might have something to do with “misattribution of emotions”: “Sometimes we have an emotion and we don’t know where it’s coming from, so we kind of stick it on something that seems sensible.” In other words, your strong feelings about the music might make you think you’re having strong feelings about the lead singer.

(More on the power of context here.)

7) And Most Importantly: Live An Interesting Life

Remember the theme of Don Quixote: If you want to be a knight, act like a knight.

If you don’t read, watch and think about generic things, generic things are less likely to come out of your mouth.

This doesn’t need to be expensive or difficult. Hang out more often with the most interesting people you know.

The friends you spend time with dramatically affect your behaviorwhether you like it or not.

The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death had this to say:

The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become.

In The Start-up of You, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha talk about how the best way to improve particular qualities in yourself is to spend time with people who are already like that.

The best and most reliable way to appear interesting is to live an interesting life.

And to pursue that ends up being far more rewarding than merely making a good impression on others.

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Related posts:

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Here’s How You Help the Poor Without Soaking the Rich

AFGHANISTAN-SOCIETY-TULIPS
Afghan children Malik, 8, and Popal, 11, wait at a roadside with wild tulips for sale to potential customers driving through the Shamali plains, north of Kabul. SHAH MARAI—AFP/Getty Images

We have to clear our minds of a fallacy about poverty alleviation: Helping the poor does not mean welfare. This isn’t to say that we don’t need welfare. Ignoring the unfortunate who can’t put enough food on the table or afford proper education or healthcare is not just cruel, it’s bad economics. The impoverished make either good consumers or productive workers.

But government aid can only reduce the suffering of the poor; it usually can’t make them escape poverty permanently. We know that from watching what has happened in the developing world over the past half century. Those countries that have tried to use wide-scale state programs to alleviate poverty—such as India—have not achieved results as quickly as nations that did not, such as Singapore and South Korea. (See my recent piece on this subject.) Generally, the high-performance economies of East Asia didn’t fight poverty by playing Robin Hood—soaking the rich and handing out cash to the poor. There is no reason why we’d have to do that today.

Instead we have to give the downtrodden better jobs, more opportunities, more tools to improve their incomes and fairer treatment in economic policy.
That means we must improve the climate for investment. I’m pretty sure you didn’t expect me to write that when you started reading. There is a widespread assumption that what’s good for companies is bad for the little guy. But if Asia’s example teaches us anything, it’s that there are two ways to end poverty: (1) create jobs and (2) create more jobs. The only way to do that is to convince businessmen to invest more.

That’s why it is imperative to make investing easier. We should press ahead with free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to bring down barriers between countries and encourage exports and cross-border investment. Though CEOs complain far too much about regulation—the sub-prime mortgage disaster, the recent General Motors recall, or Beijing’s putrid air all show that we need to keep a close eye on business—we should also streamline regulatory procedures, standardize it across countries and thus make it less onerous to follow.

We also need to improve infrastructure like transportation systems to bring down the costs of doing business. I think it is a national embarrassment for the U.S. to allow the Highway Trust Fund to run out of money at a time when the country needs both jobs and better roads. The environment for investment shouldn’t just improve for Walmart and Apple, but also entrepreneurs and small companies. In many parts of the world—in certain European countries, for example, and China—there’s too much red tape involved in starting a company, and not enough finance available.

We also need to invest in the workforce. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in an attack on a proposed minimum-wage hike, said that “I want people to make a lot more than $9—$9 is not enough.” He’s right, but that just won’t magically happen on its own. To get people’s paychecks up, workers have to possess better skills. We are simply not doing enough to improve schools, teachers and job training programs. We should also be doing more to make higher education more affordable.

While overall U.S. spending on education is among the highest in the world, it still lags in important ways. Take a look at this data comparing education spending across countries. U.S. public expenditure on education has remained more or less stable, at 5.1% of GDP in 2010, but that’s lower than a lot of other developed countries, from Sweden to New Zealand. What is also interesting is how the cost of education is pushed onto the private sector in the U.S. much more than in most other countries.

Spending is also heading in the wrong direction. The U.S. Census Bureau calculated that in fiscal 2011, expenditure per student dropped for the first time since statistics have been kept.

Clearly, the U.S. spends so much money on education already that we should be getting more bang for our buck. Reform is crucial to put all those billions to better use. But slicing spending isn’t the answer, either. The latest budget from U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan streamlines some U.S. education programs he considers wasteful and recommends measures that would add to the financial burden of going to college for some families. Meanwhile, he’s leaving the military budget generally unscathed. Do Ryan and his colleagues believe the Pentagon isn’t wasteful? Apparently not enough to put the military on a diet.

The fact is we have the money to do more for education. U.S. federal spending is about $3.5 trillion—roughly the size of the entire economy of Germany. The problem is how we choose to spend it.

We also must restore performance-based pay. The idea that people should benefit from their hard work is a cardinal belief of capitalism, but there is ample evidence that it hasn’t held true for quite a while. Productivity growth has far outpaced wage increases in the U.S. going back to the 1970s.

This appears to be a global phenomenon. The International Labor Organization (ILO) looked at 36 countries and figured that average labor productivity has increased more than twice as much as average wages since 1999. Some have disputed this argument, but we can’t deny that wages are going nowhere. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real weekly earnings in the U.S. in March were a mere $1.82 higher than a year earlier. Generally, workers are losing ground to capital globally. The ILO has shown that wages’ share in GDP has decreased in recent decades, meaning that the regular worker isn’t benefiting as he should from economic growth.

There are many factors behind this trend, including the formation of an international labor market. But globalization itself isn’t the problem—it’s how the benefits are being allocated. Corporate management doesn’t seem to care so much about shareholder value when paying themselves. Professor Steven Kaplan noted that in 2010 the average CEO of a major U.S. company earned more than $10 million, or about 200 times more than the typical household.

Companies also have the money to raise wages: They just choose not to give it to their employees. Rating agency Moody’s recently reported that U.S. non-financial companies are sitting on $1.64 trillion in cash. Companies also spent $476 billion buying back their stock in 2013, 19% more than the year before.

The question is: How get management and shareholders to disgorge more corporate profits to their employees? There isn’t an easy answer. William Galston, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, once suggested tax rates should be linked to a company’s worker compensation strategy (though that strikes me as a bit too intrusive). The ILO recommends we support stronger collective bargaining to allow workers to fight for their fair share of corporate profits.

But the crux of the problem is the idea of shareholder value. How do we convince shareholders and management that higher wages are positive for the long-term prospects of their corporations? Maybe we should consider altering the way we tax capital gains. Rather than breaking them down into two main categories—short and long term—it might help to decrease the rate the longer the asset is held. That would encourage longer-term shareholding, and perhaps make owners more interested in the long-term outlook for the companies in which they hold shares. I also think we should rebalance tax rates between capital and labor. I understand the principle that low capital-gains taxes reward people for wise investments. But what about rewarding people who work hard at their jobs every day? The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development noted in a report this month that the tax burden on wage earners has increased in most of its member states in recent years.

These are just suggestions, and I’m interested in hearing more of them. The basic point is that we have to take steps to improve both the outlook for corporations and the many ordinary employees who work for them. The game should be win-win, not zero-sum.

Religion

Why Focus On The Cross?

Good Friday
Tina Marie Photography/Getty Images/Flickr RF

As Christians around the world mark Good Friday today, they do so in changing times. In an increasingly diverse Christian environment, there is much ambivalence towards what is seen as a strange celebration of Jesus’s execution on the cross by the Roman authorities. Critics remind us that Easter—not Good Friday—is the centerpiece of the Christian story. As St. Augustine famously said: “We are Easter people, and ‘alleluia’ is our song!”

Their concerns are fair. We must not become Christians whose lives are devoid of Easter hope. But we also must not become Christians who ignore the cross of Christ, because to ignore his cross is to be blind to the sufferings all around us and to the brokenness that is present in our own hearts.

We mustn’t be naïve: the pain is everywhere. We are constantly bombarded with the sufferings of modern society by a media that seems to present it to us with a perverse enjoyment. The suffering play out on our television screens, in our communities, in our homes and most especially in our lives and in our own hearts. Yet too often we aren’t moved by it. As Pope Francis lamented last summer, we are society that has forgotten how to weep.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten how to weep because the cross of violence and pain that most afflicts us today is somewhat hidden. It’s the pain caused by the invisible violence of a government that again and again fails to serve its people, of an immigration system that denies millions of aspiring Americans their dignity, of schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. It’s the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent. Though not as noticeable as a bomb or a gunshot, these realities are just as deadly.

But the cross isn’t just present in society. It exists just as profoundly in our own lives. Good Friday allows us to admit our own destructiveness, our own vanity and our own failures. Too often we have built our lives on the misfortunes of others. Too often we have preached peace and justice for the world, but have practiced hate and indifference in our own homes and communities. And too often we have ignored the suffering of our families, our friends and our neighbors because of how busy we imagine ourselves to be.

Acknowledging the cross of Jesus allows us to address these realities of the human condition. When we end the carnival dance and remove our masks, we will see the truth: something is not right in ourselves, in society and in the Church. Perhaps we will even see that evil and sin are real, and are staining every part of us and the world we live in. Then with the Psalmist, we can cry out: “forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!”

But the cross doesn’t just stand as a distant critic. It gives us a sense of who God really is. In Jesus, God enters into the fullness of human dysfunction. In the story of Jesus’s passion and death, we see all of human brokenness on display: greed, violence, hatred, injustice and disloyalty. But we also see that Jesus enters into all of it, and redeems all of it. He goes all the way down to bring all of us up. No one is left behind.

This is the compelling story of Christianity. It isn’t simply a spiritual tradition devoid of meaning. It isn’t a spa therapy that helps us reduce our stress. At the core, it is a human encounter with a person who endured temptation, suffering and death on a cross to redeem the entirety of the human race. A Christian faith with just banners and balloons and without a cross is boring and superficial. It provides no meaning to people beyond childhood. It doesn’t give us a sense of how to deal with darkness, pain and suffering. This is where the drama of life occurs, and this is where the faith matters.

It’s pretty clear: Easter without the cross is superficial, just as the cross without the Easter is unnecessarily gloomy. We need both. Today, the Church invites to undertake the paschal mystery of Jesus, a journey that includes the cross. The road is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. With Jesus, we can change, turn around and be converted. And with his cross, our Easter joy can be complete.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter@chrisjollyhale.

The Weekend Read

Face-to-Face With a Psychopath

Photo from Trapped, a series on mental illness in American prisons, intended to increase the dialogue about prison reform and the mental health crisis in America.
Photo from Trapped, a series on mental illness in American prisons, intended to increase the dialogue about prison reform and the mental health crisis in America. Jenn Ackerman

'Shock Richie' lived up to his name—but did he also point toward a new way of looking at the psychopathic mind?

My Sunday morning began with a 60-minute commute through the rain to the home of the maximum-security treatment program for Canada’s most notorious violent offenders. This was a special day as a new cohort of inmates was being transferred in to start treatment. I was excited about the chance to interview 25 new inmates and get them signed up for my research studies.

An inmate had exited his cell completely naked and started walking up the tier.I arrived at the housing unit before the inmates had left their cells. I entered the nurses’ station and fired up the coffeemaker. The inmates’ cells opened and they rushed for the showers or the TV room. It was football season and the East Coast games were just starting. The inmates crowded into the TV room. I leaned against the door frame, watching the TV to see if I could catch a glimpse of the latest highlights. And then suddenly there was tension in the air. I felt it on the back of my neck before I was even conscious of what was happening. The inmates milling around had slowed, the sound of their feet hit­ting the cold concrete floor halted, the TV seemed to get louder, and all of a sudden I was acutely aware of the steam from the hot coffee in my mug spiraling up toward my nose.

An inmate had exited his cell completely naked and started walking up the tier. I noticed him out of the corner of my eye. He passed the TV room, shower stalls, and empty nurses’ station and proceeded down the stairs to the doors that led to the outside exer­cise area. Some of the inmates turned slightly after he had walked by to take a look at him. Others tried not to move or look, but I could see they noticed. The inmates were as confused as they were anx­ious. What was he doing?

The naked inmate proceeded outside into the rain and walked the perimeter of the short circular track. He walked around the oval track twice. The TV room was on the second floor and the inmates had a good view of the track. Some of the inmates peered outside and watched him. Everyone was distracted; no one spoke. We were all in shock.

The inmate returned, still naked, and walked up the stairs to the second-floor tier and then down to his cell. The tension around the TV room grew. The inmate quickly emerged from his cell with a towel and proceeded to the showers. He walked down the middle of the tier as inmates slowly moved out of his way or retreated into their cells. Other inmates appeared to talk to one another, but they were clearly trying to avoid any direct eye contact with him. I no­ticed one of the biggest inmates had subtly slowed his pace so that he would not cross the path of the new inmate.

The naked inmate took a quick shower and returned to his cell; there was a slight swagger to his stride. He was not particularly big, but his physique was ripped.

I had to interview him. I took a gulp of coffee and then walked toward his cell.

The first name written on masking tape above his door was “Richard.”

“Good morning. I’m the research guy from the University of British Columbia. We are con­ducting interviews and brain wave testing on the inmates in treat­ment here. Would you be interested in hearing more about it?” I asked.

“Sure” came the reply out of the dark cell.

“All right, then. Why don’t you get dressed and grab a bite to eat, and I’ll come get you in about thirty minutes. We’ll do the interview downstairs in my office.”

I returned to the nurses’ station and had a couple more cups of coffee. I wanted to make sure I was fully awake when I interviewed Richard.

‘Shock Richie’ Pushes My Button

Richard had dressed in classic prison garb: blue jeans, white T-shirt, and dark green jacket. He sauntered down the stairs and through the covered outdoor walkway to the mess hall for breakfast. He returned to his cell after about 15 minutes. I couldn’t wait; I went down early to get him.

He followed me to my office and he plopped down in the chair opposite from me.

Over a minute later, we heard doors being slammed open in the distance and the unmistakable sound of running footsteps.Before I could get the consent form out of the drawer, he stared at me and said: “You ever need to push that red button?” He was refer­ring to the silver-dollar-sized button in the middle of the wall; when depressed, it signaled distress. A buzzer would go off in the guard bubble down the hallway.

We were both about the same distance away from the button. I realized that I might not be able to reach the button before he could get to me. My mind quickly turned to figuring out a new way to or­ganize the office so that I was closer to the button than the inmates being interviewed.

“No,” I replied. “In the five years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had to push the button.” I threw the five years in to let him know that I had some experience behind me.

Without saying another word, he leaped up and slammed his hand on the button. I didn’t have time to react. He returned to his seat as quickly as he had jumped up.

“Let’s see what happens,” he said calmly, leaning back into his chair.

Over a minute later, we heard doors being slammed open in the distance and the unmistakable sound of running footsteps.

I had thought about getting up and opening the door for the guards, but I would have had to pass by Richard to get to the door. So I just sat in my chair and waited. The guards’ response time felt glacial.

A key was jammed into my door and then it was flung open; two guards entered, panting and out of breath, and stared at us.

Richard turned calmly in his chair and said to the guards: “What’s the problem?”

“Someone pushed the alarm button,” the guard stammered. “Ev­erything okay?” His question was directed at me.

“Oh, I must have accidentally pushed it when I took my coat off,” Richard answered. “Everything is just fine; we are just doing the research interview here.”

“Okay,” the guard said. “Don’t do that again.”

I just nodded. I was having trouble speaking.

The guards pulled the door closed and Richard turned and looked at me.

“They call me Shock Richie,” he said. “And I’m going to shock you too.”

Mustering as much inner strength as I could, I replied: “I’m looking forward to it; I’m here to be shocked. Take your best shot.”

Shock Richie smiled.

Prison is never boring, I thought.

‘You ever tried to carry a body?’

We completed the consent form and then I started the Psychopa­thy Checklist interview with a question I would never ask any other inmate in my career.

“Why did you walk naked out in the rain?”

Nike probably never envisioned a psychopathic in­mate embracing their slogan ‘Just Do It’ in a manner quite like this.“Well, I arrived last night. You have to make an impression on the other inmates right away when you get shipped to a new place. I saw you standing there by the TV room. You noticed how all the other inmates got a bit nervous when I walked by. Even the big ones get nervous when you do shit like that. You just got to establish your­self right away. If you don’t, then inmates think they can test you.” He stared quite matter-of-factly at me; the emptiness in his eyes was unnerving.

“When I do stuff like that, inmates don’t know what to think. I’m unpredictable. Sometimes I don’t even know why I do what I do. I just do it.”

My mind was racing again. I completely agreed with his logic, albeit twisted; he had already established his dominance at this prison. He was going to score high on at least a few psychopathic traits. Nike probably never envisioned a psychopathic in­mate embracing their slogan Just Do It in a manner quite like this.

“You’ve been working here for five years?”

“Yes, since I started graduate school,” I replied.

“Interviewed lots of guys, right?”

“Yes, hundreds of them.”

“Well, you ain’t never met anyone like me,” he said.

“Really? What makes you so special?”

“I’ve done shit you can’t even imagine. I’m gonna shock you like I shock everyone,” he stated calmly. “Let’s get on with it.”

Richie enjoyed doing bad things. He was only in his late 20s when I interviewed him, but he had a rap sheet like no one I had ever interviewed before. As a teenager he had committed burglary, armed robbery of banks and convenience stores, arson for hire, and all kinds of drug-related crimes from distribution to forcing others to mule drugs for him. He would force women to hide plastic bag­gies of cocaine in their body cavities and transport them across bor­ders and state lines and on plane flights. One of Richie’s girls got a baggie stuck in her vagina. Richie used a knife to “open her up a bit” so he could retrieve his drugs. He said he didn’t use her again after that. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that he didn’t use her for sex; she was too loose now, and she lost her nerve about carrying drugs.

Richie smiled as he told me a story of a prostitute he had killed for pissing him off. He actually seemed proud when he described wrapping her up in the same blanket he had suffocated her with so he could keep all the forensic evidence in one place. He put her in the trunk of his car and drove out to a deserted stretch of road bor­dered by a deep forest. Chuckling, he told me he was pulled over by a highway trooper because he was driving erratically as he searched for a dirt road to drive up so he could bury the body in the woods.

“So the cop pulls me over and comes up to the window and asks me if I have been drinking alcohol. I lied and said no. I told him that I just had to take a piss and I was looking for a place to go. But the cop gave me a field sobriety test anyways. I figured that if I didn’t pass the test, I would have to kill that cop. Otherwise, he might open the trunk and discover the body. The cop didn’t search me when I got out of the car, and I was carrying a knife and a handgun. I’m surprised that I passed that field test since I had had a few drinks that night. I was planning to beat the cop senseless and then I was going to put the girl’s body in the backseat of the cop’s car. Then I would shoot him in the head with his own gun and make it look like a suicide after he accidentally killed the prostitute while raping her in the backseat of his cruiser. Everyone would think it was just another sick dude.”

The irony of his latter statement was completely lost on Shock Richie.

The cop proceeded to point out a dirt road just up the way where Richie could pull over and take a piss. It was fascinating that Richie could remain calm enough not to set off any alarm bells for the cop that something was amiss. After all, Richie had a body decomposing in the trunk of the car. Yet apparently, Richie showed no anxiety in front of the cop. Most psychopaths like Richie lack anxiety and ap­prehension associated with punishment.

Richie turned up the dirt road the cop pointed out to him and drove in a ways. He pulled over, parked, and removed the body from the trunk.

“I had all these great plans to carry the body miles into the woods and bury it really deep so nobody would ever find it. But it’s f—ing hard to carry a body. You ever tried to carry a body?” he asked.

“No, I don’t have any experience carrying dead bodies,” I told him.

“Well, it’s a lot of work, let me tell you. So I only got about a hundred yards off the road and just into the trees before I was ex­hausted. Then I went back and got the shovel from the car. I started digging a huge hole.”

He looked up at me with those empty eyes and asked: “You know how hard it is to dig a hole big enough to bury a body?”

“No,” I answered, “I don’t have any experience digging holes to bury bodies.”

“Well, it’s harder than you might think.” He starts laughing. “I had all these great plans to carry her miles into the woods and dig this monster hole so nobody would ever find her.”

A couple weeks later, a couple of hikers discovered the body. Shock Richie read about it in the newspapers, but he was never charged with the murder.

Not His Brother’s Keeper

Richie admitted that he had no need for friends. He’d really never been close to anyone in his life. He preferred to do everything on his own. He also didn’t trust anyone.

I believed him. Richie had no friends in prison, he had no visitors, and all the other inmates said he could not be trusted and he knew not to trust them in return.

While he was having sex with the prostitute in the living room, she said she smelled something funny.He had lived a life supported by crime, never had any vocational training, and never made even a passing attempt at any other life­style. He made most of his big scores by taking down rival drug pushers. He would set up deals in different towns and then rob and sometimes kill the other person. Richie had no fear or hesitation with killing. Richie also had more than a dozen fake names and ac­companying identification.

For a long time he was a pimp. He used to corral runaways into working for him. He would get them hooked on drugs and then make them work the streets. He’d killed more than a few prostitutes. He saw people as objects, things to be manipulated; we were there just for his entertainment.

When Richie had been released the last time from prison, he was taken in by his older brother. His older brother was not a criminal. He was on the straight and narrow. After a few months of Richie bringing home prostitutes and doing drug deals at the house, his brother had told Richie he had to stop or he was going to kick him out. They argued, but Richie never tried to change his behavior. Fi­nally, his brother had had enough. He picked up the phone to call the police to have him arrested for drug possession. “I was high,” said Richie, “but not more than usual. I got the jump on him and beat him with the phone. While he was lying there dazed on the floor, I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I came back and stabbed him a few times.” He looked up at me intently to see if I was shocked.

“Continue,” I said.

“I figured that I would make it look like somebody had come over and killed him as part of a drug deal gone bad. Then I thought that maybe I should make it look like my brother had raped one of my girls and one of them had stabbed him.” By girls he meant the prostitutes in his “stable.”

After killing his brother, he went out and partied for a day or two. Then he came back home with a prostitute whom he planned to stab, and then put the weapon in the hand of his dead brother. He was going to put them both in the basement and make it look like his brother died quickly during the fight and the girl died slowly from stab wounds.

While he was having sex with the prostitute in the living room, she said she smelled something funny.

“You ever smell a body after it’s been decomposing for a couple days?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “I don’t have any experience smelling decompos­ing bodies.”

“Well, they stink. I recommend getting rid of them fast.”

After having sex, he intended to lure the girl down into the base­ment. But the prostitute excused herself to use the bathroom and she jumped out the window and ran away. Later that evening the police showed up at his door and asked to come inside. Apparently, the prostitute recognized that odd smell to be that of a decomposing body. She had good survival instincts.

Richie told the cops he had been away from the house partying for a few days. He didn’t know that his brother had been killed. Con­fessing to being a pimp and drug dealer, Richie told the officers that he owed a lot of people a lot of money. He gave them a list of a dozen or so names of potential suspects.

The police eventually arrested Richie. Through his attorney, Richie received a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to many years in prison.

No More Little Richies?

Richie had a few more zingers he hit me with that day. He had indeed met my challenge. When I got home that evening, I opened a bottle of wine; it was empty before I knew it.

If Shock Richie’s brain has been abnormal since he was a child, is he responsible for his actions as an adult?Richie and I have both spent the last 20 years in prison. Richie as an inmate, me as a scientist trying to understand the mind and brain of the psychopath. Richie scored in the 99th percentile on Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the test we use to assess psychopathic traits. There are 20 psychopathic traits on the Hare PCL-R, including Lack of Empathy, Guilt and Remorse, Callousness, Irresponsibility, and Impulsivity. Richie fit the classic definition of all of those traits.

Richie was also the first psychopath to receive an MRI scan of his brain. Since that first MRI study my laboratory has scanned the brains of more than 3,000 other inmates, many of them psychopaths like Richie. This MRI data is the world’s largest forensic neuroscience repository and it is starting to yield some startling discoveries. We know for example, how Richie’s brain differs from the rest of us. His limbic system, the area of the brain that controls emotion and affect, is reduced in both brain structure and function. Additional research has found these same brain abnormalities in incarcerated youth with emerging psychopathic traits. Indeed, some scientists argue that emotional and behavioral antecedents to psychopathic traits can be recognized as early as age 6.

If Shock Richie’s brain has been abnormal since he was a child, is he responsible for his actions as an adult? Does Richie have the same free will as the rest of us?

Finally, the latest science of psychopaths has also illuminated a path that might remedy these problems before they even get started. Indeed, studies are showing that early treatment might prevent little Richies from ever developing.

Excerpts adapted from The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience (Crown), by Dr. Kent Kiehl, available Apr. 22.

Autos

It’s Time to Ditch the Booth Babes

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STR—AFP/Getty Images

It’s the holiest time of the year. No, not Easter or Passover. It’s the New York International Auto Show, an occasion to worship true gods: horsepower, sheet metal, chrome. If you’re a business journalist working in New York, there’s nothing like attending the press days ahead of the auto show’s public opening. Walking into the cavernous exhibition hall is a lot like walking into Chartres with its spectral light and thick solemnity—except way better because you don’t have to feel guilty about all the terrible things you’ve done and, for the most part, there’s no organ music.

I make the arduous pilgrimage to the far west side of Manhattan every year for the show and always end up, a few hours later, stumbling out dilated and deliriously happy. You might call it auto-erotic-euphoria. But this year was different. As I strolled around the show floor, taking in the ludicrously cute new Jeep and admiring Mercedes’ heavy metal, I found myself feeling uneasy, rather than blissful. Unlike years past, my flânerie wasn’t taking me to my happy place.

The problem, I suddenly realized, wasn’t Land Rover’s anodyne and deeply disappointing Discovery Sport. It was that a fixture of the auto show has become nauseatingly passé. It’s well beyond time that auto shows—and, really, trade shows of any kind including the Consumer Electronics Show and Comic Con—dump their tradition of employing young women in tight dresses and high high-heels to hang around “the product” like a tablecloth in a Flemish still life.

We need to ban the “booth babes.” The auto companies are increasingly being run by some of the smartest, most interesting executives in business (of any kind). It’s time they ditch this outmoded practice and do it as fast as they presumably blurt out that electric cars are a great idea in mixed company. If nothing else, the auto makers can look at the bottom line. Some trustworthy-seeming marketing experts have figured out these women don’t actually help sell anything.

And another thing: It’s awkward. For me. Here I am wandering around, casting a lecherous gaze at this motorcycle or that coupe and I suddenly find myself making eye contact with an exploited model. First of all, the muscles in my face aren’t developed enough to be able to configure themselves to telegraph a message of “I’m not lusting after you, pardon me for looking at you that way. I was lusting after that inanimate object six inches to your left.” More importantly, the practice takes attention away from the point of the show: the cars, which every year get more impressive and more technologically stunning.

I know what some booth babe enthusiasts are going to say: trade shows provide a much-needed employment stimulus to New York City’s struggling acting and modeling community. (This year, I heard one of the guys unfolding tables for a cocktail reception gripe, “This isn’t where I thought drama camp would take me.”) And it’s true that many of the hard-working models act as ambassadors during the show, answering questions and giving succinct history lessons on this or that particular brand. I’m sympathetic.

So I have a proposal. Why not repurpose a segment of the show floor nobody cares about—like, say, the weirdly huge cargo van area in the basement that must only be popular with serial killers from New Jersey—and instead put on a couple of the Theban plays gratis? That way the unemployed actors and actresses can benefit economically from the influx of car lovers like me into the city and the auto show itself can simply be—as it should always—a feast of the moveable.

remembrance

Isabel Allende on Gabriel García Márquez: ‘His Work Is Immortal’

"He is the most important of all Latin American writers of all times, the voice of magic realism, and the pillar of the Latin American Boom of literature."

Chilean writer Isabel Allende, whose novels incorporate the magical realist style perfected by fellow Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez, issued the following public statement after García Márquez passed away on Thursday (click on text to view larger):

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human behavior

Your Baby Is a Racist—and Why You Can Live With That

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It don't come easy: bonding across racial lines requires overcoming some very old genetic programming Hero Images; Getty Images/Hero Images

From humanity's earliest era, we had evolved to distinguish in-groups from out-groups and to assign powerful value to those differences. Call it racism, but it helped us survive

You always suspected babies were no good, didn’t you? They’re loud, narcissistic, spoiled, volatile and not exactly possessed of good table manners. Now it turns out that they’re racists too.

The latest evidence for that decidedly unlovely trait comes from research out of the University of Washington that actually sought to explore one of babies’ more admirable characteristics: their basic sense of fairness. In the study, 15-month-old toddlers watched an experimenter with a collection of four small toys share them either evenly or unevenly with two other adult volunteers. When allowed to choose which experimenters the babies wanted to play with later, 70% of them preferred the ones who had divided the toys evenly.

Nice, but there was an exception: when the two adults who were receiving the evenly or unevenly divided toys were of different races and the race of the one who got more toys matched the babies’ own, the 70% preference for the fair distributor dropped and the share of babies wanting to play with the unfair one rose. The implication: unfairness is bad, unless someone from your clan is getting the extra goodies.

“If all babies care about is fairness, they would always pick the fair distributor,” said University of Washington associate professor psychology of Jessica Somerville, in a statement that accompanied the study. “But we’re also seeing that they’re interested in consequences for their own group members.”

OK, so that doesn’t speak well of human nature at even its sweetest and most ingenuous stage. But here’s the thing: if we weren’t rank racists when we were very little, the species probably never would have survived. The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era. The fact is, the people in your own band are more likely to nurture you, care for you and protect you from harm, while the people from the tribe over the hill are more likely to, well, eat you.

As soon as you become old enough to toddle away from the campfire and wander out on your own, it thus pays to recognize, at a glance, what an alien other looks like. Sometimes it’s dress or hairstyle that provides the telltale cue, but just as often it’s skin tone, hair texture and the shape of facial features. It was the human tendency to migrate and settle in parts of the world with varying climates that caused these physical differences to emerge in the first place.

“We didn’t start off as a multi-racial species,” psychologist Liz Phelps of New York University told me in my upcoming book about narcissism. “We have races simply because we dispersed.” Once we did disperse, however, those differences in appearance—skin tone especially—turbocharged our suspicion of the outsider.

A study by psychologist Yarrow Dunham, now at Yale University, showed that color is an especially salient feature for very young people to overlook. Children in a classroom experiment who were divided into two groups and given two different color t-shirts to wear were, later on, much likelier to remember good things about all of the children who wore their color shirt and bad things about the ones who wore the other. “Kids will begin to show these preferences right away, in the lab, on the spot,” Dunham told me. “It’s not just a preference, it’s also a learning bias—the children actually learn differentially about the in-group and the out-group.”

Sometimes, for small children, there can be a certain sweetness to the bias, since they may feel concern for the person of a different race, the assumption being that anyone who doesn’t look like them must be unhappy about that fact. When my older daughter was three or four years old, we approached an African American cashier in a store and she asked her, “Are you sad that you don’t have light skin?” I winced and began to splutter an apology, but the woman answered, “No, honey. Are you said that you don’t have dark skin?” When my daughter said no, the woman responded, “So you see? We’re both happy with who we are.”

The sweet phase of simply noticing racial differences fades, to be replaced either by a higher awareness of the meaningless of such matters or a toxic descent into assigning ugly, negative values to them. Which way any one baby goes depends on upbringing, community, era, temperament and a whole range of other variables. What we will never be, like it or not, is an entirely post-racial species. Our better impulses may wish that weren’t so, but our ancient impulses will always test us. They are tests we must, from babyhood, learn to pass.

Business

Want To Give Up All Your Legal Rights? Click Here.

General Mills wants to restrict your ability to sue. Welcome to the latest in corporate skullduggery.

My Lucky Charms were too soggy this morning. I’m going to sue.

If you are a consumer products or services company such as General Mills, this is how you see the world: full of very crazy people and very smart lawyers, which you view as a very bad combination that is more than willing to take you to court over the moisture levels of breakfast foods. Or misleading labels. Or unproven health claims. Silly stuff like that.

Which is part of the explanation of why General Mills, the owner of popular brands such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Nature Valley, Yoplait, Old El Paso, and Progresso, has changed the legal terms for using its web site, or even buying one of its products. As the New York Times pointed out in a delightful piece of reporting, if you so much a download a coupon from the General Mills website it’s the equivalent, in the company’s view, of signing a contract that prohibits you from suing or joining a class action suit against it. Parsing General Mills’s privacy and legal sections will cost you about 7,000 words of reading time, but the operative ones are as follows: “These terms are a binding legal agreement (‘Agreement’) between you and General Mills.” You probably didn’t think that buying a pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla would imply a contractual obligation on your part.

If the Bisquick hits the fan, in other words, you can’t go running to court. You are required to deal with the company in a private arbitration — hey, Mills will even pick up the cost. So downloading a 50-cent-off coupon on your next purchase of Hamburger Helper discounts your legal recourse. Sure seems like Big Business operating in a this-is-why-we- hate-them-model, with the corporate legal department playing its traditional starring role. “General Mills is proud to market some of the world’s most-trusted brands,” the company says in the introduction to this fine print.

It’s you that Mills doesn’t trust.

There’s a ton of fine print in our everyday lives that we almost have to ignore. Each time you download an iPhone operating system update, for instance, up pops an agreement a mile long. I still don’t know what it says, but knowing Apple it probably claims that you should be grateful Apple even lets you own one of its precious gadgets. Don’t even think about legal action. And have you ever read your cable service agreement? I dare you.

Forced arbitration isn’t all that unusual. It’s part of every brokerage agreement, for instance. If you lost a lot of money because your broker sold you risky junk bonds when you thought you’d be getting safer treasury bonds, any dispute coming out of it goes to arbitration. And it’s common among corporations, too, which makes sense if they want to avoid litigation. (Oddly enough, I found a New York state court case in which General Mills sued to void a mandatory arbitration clause in a contract it had with another company.)

But what’s outrageous here is that General Mills seems to be seeking shelter from class action or consumer advocate cases even if it engages in bad corporate behavior: violating nutritional labeling laws, say. Consumers in Florida and California, for instance, sued the company over health benefit claims made by its Yoplait YoPlus and Nature Valley products. The company says its health and nutrition claims are correct — and doesn’t see why it should be subject to a class action claim. You got a beef over yogurt, let’s go to arbitration.

There’s a lot at stake. For decades, the corporate bar and the tort bar — which handles personal injury and class action cases — have been a war over who can sue and under what conditions. Corporations see themselves as victims of overzealous (read ambulance chasing) lawyers. And that’s been true in some abusive disputes such as asbestos litigation. To some degree legislators have agreed with them. Bad corporate behavior, though, never seems to go out of fashion. And given the ineffectiveness of regulators or legislators in reining it in, tort lawyers have acted as the biggest restraint against misbehaving companies.

So maybe as consumers we have to turn the tables on the corporate lawyers. Dear General Mills, please read and endorse this e-mail agreement which states the terms under which I am willing to become a consumer of your trusted brands. You understand that I can’t trust you, because corporate behavior since the Pure Foods Act of 1906 has told me not to. I understand that if my Betty Crocker cake fails to rise— my bad. As for everything else, all bets are off. And by the way: By clicking on this article, you’ve already agreed.

Religion

Dear Religion, I Quit You!

I've discovered grace and I'm sticking with it.

When I was a kid, my dad would let me stay up and watch “Cheers” each week. Granted it’s not the most “kid friendly” show, but I could’ve cared less. I was getting to stay up past my bedtime!

My parents divorced when I was 3, and from about 3rd grade on, my big brother and I, grew up with our dad. That’s right…3 bachelors. And what better way to establish top notch parenting skills than to immediately let this 3rd grader start staying up past 9pm central time to watch “Cheers!” You must remember, the Disney channel didn’t really exist yet, so it was up to Sam Malone, Cliff Clavin and Norm to give this kid a few life lessons.

Ahhh Norm. I LOVED Norm. Forget ever understanding any of the jokes. All I knew was, every week, Norm would walk through that door and the whole place would yell “NORM.” Heck I was yelling it too!

For a kid feeling like I was being tossed around between parents, the idea of a place where you were accepted day in and day out resonated deeply within me! Even the theme song to “Cheers” was practically a church hymn because it stirred me so much. “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came!” Man I would belt that at the top of my lungs the same way I am right now as I write this. Dang that’s a great song!

I’m 41 now. I’m married to the most amazing woman and have 5 kids. And I’m just now understanding my connection to that show. I’ve spent my whole life looking for grace. REAL grace. Not religion, but grace. There’s a difference ya know. I found “religion” at 13. I bought in hook, line and sinker. Grace? I discovered grace about 2 years ago. It has changed me to the core, and I ain’t going back.

Religion says “Give 110%.”

Grace says “Rest in the finished work of the Cross.”

Religion says “Don’t disappoint God.”

Grace says “God has been pleased with you since the day you called His name!”

Religion says “Being good is a start.”

Grace says “Christ on the cross is enough.”

Religion says “Get it right!”

Grace says “I’ll be there when you get it wrong!”

Religion says “We’re bad people trying to be good…you sin, you’re out”

Grace says “We’re Holy, righteous and redeemed. So when you do sin, it’s ok.”

Religion says “Your heart cannot be trusted.”

Grace says “You have the heart and mind of Christ

Religion says “Try harder.”

Grace says “Rest.”

Religion says “Please God.”

Grace says “Trust God.”

Religion says “Give more.”

Grace says “Give up.”

I did everything religion told me to do for a long time only to end up frustrated, beat down and jaded. I couldn’t keep up. No matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. So I decided to quit. And I did.

Then the craziest thing happened. Grace appeared. No, I take that back…I stopped long enough to see grace. I believe my life has been covered by grace since I trusted in Christ at age 13. I just had to turn 40 to notice.

Let me put it this way, if you were drowning, you wouldn’t really be in a place to lend a hand as far as being rescued. You’d be at the mercy of the lifeguard. Once pulled out, you may be a little out of it, not sure where you are, but safe nonetheless.

Then it sinks in. You start to realize someone just saved your life! How could you ever repay this person for saving you? You don’t have to be reminded to be grateful…you are freaking ALIVE! You have a new lease on life! From that point on, nothing will ever be the same.

I was rescued at 13. I realized it at 40. For me, life has just begun! I no longer have to be reminded to be grateful because I am freaking ALIVE! When I walked out on religion, I walked into a place where, as if I were Norm himself, grace screamed,”BARRRRRRRT!!! IT’S ABOUT STINKING TIME!”

Bart Millard is the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum selling band MercyMe, who just released their eighth studio project, “Welcome to the New,” which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Listen to “Greater,” which appears on MercyMe’s latest album, below.

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