I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of the “near death experience” – known by the acronym NDE. Perhaps it is my belief in an after-life – even though I am not sure what form it takes – which accounts for this interest. After all, for someone who believes in an after life the reports of what happens in NDEs’ seems to offer some sort of affirmation of what happens after death.

There are also scientific explanations that seek to debunk the spiritual explanations of such experiences. Scientists suggest that NDEs’ are attributable to physical causes such as brain chemistry (neural noise, hypoxia, etc.), psychological states (wish fulfillment or reliving the birth trauma), and sociological factors (religious fantasies based on social conditioning). But neither side is able to prove conclusively what these NDEs’ really represent – whether spiritual or something capable of a more scientific explanation. Perhaps it is just as well since it allows people to place their faith in whatever suits their purpose.

What happens during a NDE varies and the traits of a classical NDE may include one or more of the following: a sense/awareness of being dead, a sense of peace, well-being and painlessness, a feeling of being removed from the world, an out-of-body experience involving a perception of one’s body from an outside position including sometimes observing doctors and nurses performing medical resuscitation efforts, a “tunnel experience” frequently including a rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light, an intense feeling of unconditional love, encountering “Beings of Light” or other spiritual beings, being reunited with deceased loved ones, approaching a border, a decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return and other similar emotions.

Anyway, all of this came to mind as I read about the death of two individuals – the first was Steve Jobs and the other was Christopher Hitchens . They were two very different individuals who left their marks in different arenas and both were men I admired although in the case of Hitchens I was less than enthused by his support of the war in Iraq which I found to be quite inexplicable given his general views – after all, Hitchen was a man who wanted Heny Kissinger charged and tried for war crimes because of his involvement in the Vietnam war and Cambodian incursion. Hitchens was horrified by the fatwa imposed on his friend, Salman Rushdie, by the Ayatollah Khomenei which resulted in Rushdie having to go into hiding for years. Perhaps, Hitchens perceived that what happened to Rushdie was the direct result of Muslim fundamentalism and extremism and felt that the West needed to take a stronger stance against Muslim countries who were inclined to sponsor terrorism.

Hitchens was a brilliant writer, polemicist and provocateur. I loved reading his columns – he was incredibly articulate, had a gift when it came to expressing himself whether in writing or orally and was very blunt without regard for political correctness. He was an atheist – vocally so – and wrote a book “God is not great” which was really a play on Muslim proclamations of “Allah u Akbar” which literally means “God is great”. He was deeply critical of phoney evangelists – and religious leaders of other faiths – who would proclaim piety at the very same time that they showed little compassion or tolerance for those with whom he disagreed.

A perfect illustration of his bluntness and unwillingness to observe the niceties of custom was his exchanges with Sean Hannity – a right-wing talk show host – when Rev Jerry Falwell died. Hannity tried to shout him down as he often does with those he disagrees but Hitchens was not having any of it and got the better of him as he calmly addressed why he said what he did about Falwell:


Hitchens, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus about a year ago and was touched by the numerous messages he received from Christians and others who said they would pray for his recovery – he was struck by the magnanimity of those who he had ridiculed over the years because of their faith. He expressed his gratitude but never wavered to the very end in his atheistic beliefs.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, while not known for being vocal about his faith was confirmed as a Lutheran but during his hippie days he visited ashrams in India during the 70′s and returned to the States as a Buddhist. This was not just a passing fancy because he was married to his wife at Yosemite National Park by Kobin Chino Otogowa, a Zen Buddhist monk. There were indirect allusions to his faith after he first became ill – especially in the address he gave at the commencement address at Stanford University.



So what is the connection between the death of Hitchens, Jobs and near death experiences? This morning I was reading an interesting column by Peggy Noonan in the WSJ about Jobs’ sister Mona Simpson and her eulogy at his funeral. The eulogy covered many facets of his life but Noonan focused on Jobs’ last words. Here is what Simpson wrote:

“Until about 2 in the afternoon, his wife could rouse him, to talk to his friends from Apple.

Then, after awhile, it was clear that he would no longer wake to us.

His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before.

This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.

Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.

He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths. She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.

This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

He seemed to be climbing.

But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.

Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were:


Noonan focused on his last words – “OH WOW, OH WOW, OH WOW” and said that in her opinion those words were “the best thing said in 2011”. Here is more of what she said in her column:

“The caps are Simpson’s, and if she meant to impart a sense of wonder and mystery she succeeded. “Oh wow” is not a bad way to express the bigness, power and force of life, and death. And of love, by which he was literally surrounded.

I wondered too, after reading the eulogy, if I was right to infer that Jobs saw something, and if so, what did he see? What happened there that he looked away from his family and expressed what sounds like awe? I thought of a story told by a friend, whose grown son had died, at home, in a hospice. The family was ringed around his bed. As Robert breathed his last an infant in the room let out a great baby laugh as if he saw something joyous, wonderful, and gestured toward the area above Robert’s head. The infant’s mother, startled, moved to shush him but my friend, her mother, said no, maybe he’s just reacting to . . . something only babies see.

Anyway I sent Ms. Simpson’s eulogy to a number of people and spoke to some of them, and they all had two things in common in terms of their reaction. They’d get a faraway look, and think. And if they had a thought to share they did it with modesty. No one said, “I think I can guess what he saw,” “I know who he saw,” or “Believe me, if he saw anything it was the product of the last, disordered sparks of misfiring neurons.”

They were always modest, reflective. One just said, “Wow.”

Modesty when contemplating death is a good thing.

When words leave people silent and thinking they are powerful words. Steve Jobs’ last words were the best thing said in 2011.”

Noonan is a Roman Catholic and although she does not say it explicitly one gets the sense that she thinks those last words had a significance beyond the mere muttering of a man on his death bed. What I found interesting also were the comments left by readers of her column. There were those who stated in explicit or guarded terms that Jobs had seen something wondrous which prompted him to say what he did. There was one person – whose name suggests that he was a Hindu – who said: “it’s quite likely that Steve Jobs entered a state of “Nirvikalpa Samadhi,” an enlightened meditative state that caused him to echo those ecstatic last words!”. There were others who were more cynical – one suggested that perhaps “Jobs could have been describing the auto-search feature of his latest i-whatever, or some such.”

Another said “you didn’t quote Christopher Hitchens’ last words? I think it was “Hmmm, just as I thought!” – clearly expressing his disdain for the weight that Noonan seemed to be attributing to Jobs last words.

As for myself, I don’t know what to make of it. I would love to think that Jobs saw something that caused him to react the way that he did. I will never know until my time on this earth has come to an end.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Jobs, Hitchens, faith and near death experiences”

  1. Judy says:

    I loved this post and I like the way you blend in your own thoughts with that of others.

    You write very well.

  2. Peter says:

    very interesting post about two individuals who really made their mark in history. naturally Jobs in a tangible way which actually brings me to Hitchens, what an interesting man.
    pity that I never followed him closely while he was alive.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>