The Third Man is an unseen presence sensed by people who are in extremis, struggling, and near the point of death. This presence encourages them to make one final effort to survive.
Who are these people who have encountered the Third Man? Arctic explorers, high altitude mountain climbers, and shipwreck survivors rank among those who have had this experience. A more recent example is the last man to escape the collapsing World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The Third Man offers good advice, words of encouragement, and motivates people to do the impossible to overcome overwhelming odds. Those who have sensed his or her presence (the Third Man is sometimes a woman) describe a being who endures the physical hardship with them and is steadfast, staying with them through the painful efforts to survive in extreme environments. The being disappears only when help is at hand, frequently prior to survivors becoming aware that they are out of danger and their ordeal is over.
I can only hope that those who did not live to tell the tale also benefited from a comforting presence before succumbing.
I became interested in the phenomenon after reading a very well-written blog post by Jenn on The Mystery of the Third Man where she referenced the book by John Geiger. In both the book and blog post, the Shackleton Expedition is highlighted as a textbook example of the experience. Oddly, the Shackleton Expedition is also used as a case study by the Harvard Business School (HBS) to teach crisis leadership.
Having been sent to the HBS boot camp by my former employer, I listened to the professor laud the performance of this hero. I also remember sitting there thinking Mr. Shackleton was a rare idiot. My thoughts were confirmed when Geiger’s book pointed out that Shackleton first conceived of the expedition when he was a 22-year-old sailor in the merchant marine. Of all the ridiculous things, the idea came to him in a dream: “I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the earth.” Worse, the madman convinced a bunch of other idiots that this was a good idea.
To give credit where due, Shackleton did suffer greatly and did manage to save everyone on the expedition. He did not lose a man. But all of this would have been completely unnecessary if he hadn’t decided to take a hike to the South Pole. For the sake of ego and vanity, lives were put at risk. If you’re gonna do something really high risk, you should at the very least have something really worth it at the end. And being featured as an HBS case study for the rest of eternity does not count as something worthy.
The Third Man should not be put through the wringer when so little is at stake. I have no qualms with some noble entity showing up in the final hour to offer comfort to someone who is in a bad position through no fault of their own. However, people who willingly put not only their own lives at risk, but also bring collateral damage to others in their wake—well, that just deserves something a little more special than the stereotypical Third Man.
Perhaps if The Third Man were more like Monty Python’s John Cleese and would not hesitate to comment on someone’s utter stupidity, we’d put our efforts into something with higher yield. Imagine having put yourself in a precarious situation where there is no guarantee that you’re going to make it. Now imagine a very irate Third Man showing up.
Idiot: I don’t know how I get myself into these things. I don’t deserve to die. None of this is my fault!
Third Man: DON’T GIVE ME THAT, YOU SNOTTY-FACED HEAP OF PARROT DROPPINGS!
Idiot: Hey! You’re supposed to be nice to me. I’m a rugged individualist and I know my rights.
Third Man: SHUT YOUR FESTERING GOB, YOU TIT! YOUR TYPE MAKES ME PUKE! YOU VACUOUS TOFFEE-NOSED MALODOROUS PERVERT!!!
But this version of The Third Man couldn’t possibly be inspired by any recent events…
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