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| Finding a Happy
“Medium”-- One Teen’s Quest for Spirituality in Modern America
by Philip Devitt
When my parents were my age, talking horses, nose-twitching witches and belly-baring genies were all the rage on television. The networks were brimming with supernatural-themed programs. “Casper” showed the nation that ghosts could be friendly. “The Twilight Zone” demonstrated their darker side. And “The Ghost & Mrs. Muir” proved that they could be just plain annoying. It seemed that nearly every time a mortal communed with the great beyond, it was a formula for success.
I grew up watching a man named John Edward do just that. The only difference is he was for real.
Edward, arguably America’s most well-known medium, soared into ratings-heaven in 1999 when his show “Crossing Over” debuted on the Sci-Fi network. I remember finding the show one night on a fluke. At twelve years old, I was more of a Nickelodeon geek than a Sci-Fi geek but alas my remote was busted. I punched in the number for my favorite channel but things got jumbled and “Crossing Over” popped onto the screen instead.
I dashed for the knob on the television but by then it was too late. I was drawn in. So I sat back for a minute and watched. The first thing I saw was an audience of mainly older women and their husbands sitting silently in rapt attention, all their eyes fixed on a man in the center of the room. He stood there on a luminous disc, dressed in khakis and a black sweater. His sleeves were rolled up and his face was taut with concentration. Whoever this guy was, he seemed to be working hard. It took me another minute to realize what exactly he was doing. Talking with the dead.
Edward centered in on a woman in the third row. He said that her mother was coming through. He talked about an upcoming birthday or anniversary. He talked about a blessed rosary. He told the woman that her mother was still with her and still loved her.
As the audience broke into applause, the camera panned to the woman’s tear-soaked face. She looked sad and joyful and shocked and relieved all at the same time. Then the credits rolled, and Edward looked into the camera and reminded his viewers to “communicate, appreciate and validate the people in your life today so a medium like myself never has to do it for you.”
I think most people would break out into song and dance upon discovering a show like this-- upon the revelation that not only is there an afterlife, but that we can talk with it, too. But I wasn’t overjoyed. I wasn’t even slightly wowed. I was more intrigued and bemused.
I was also a Catholic. I didn’t necessarily attend Mass every week and I couldn’t quote the Bible but I knew that the Church probably didn’t approve of this talking-to-the-dead thing. In addition, I had my doubts about Edward. I was skeptical about the validity of what he was doing. The possibility that his “ability” could be a sham crept under my skin and into my brain.
The fact that the show was on the Sci-Fi channel didn’t help his case either. Who did this guy think he was? Why were so many people willing to appear on national television just to be exploited in the long run? These questions bubbled up in my mind hungry for answers but they found none.
I could have vowed that night to begin my crusade against John Edward. I could have vowed that night to build up an extensive case, get on the next plane to New York City and knock him off his pedestal.
Instead, I switched the channel to Nickelodeon and laughed at cartoons until I fell asleep.
I was, after all, only twelve.
I’m nineteen now, and a lot has changed in the last seven years.
Perhaps the biggest change was the death of my grandmother in 2002. She had endured a lengthy illness and the end had been expected, but when it came, grief hit me hard. All of the emotional preparation had been in vain. I denied the death. I got angry. I inevitably went through all the stages I had read about in psychology-- everything but acceptance.
Sure, I accepted that my grandmother was gone physically but I couldn’t accept that she was gone spiritually. I felt a determination start to cook deep inside of me-- a determination to find out where she had gone and how she got there, if she was healed and if she was happy, and if she had reunited with her loved ones in this place I’d heard so much about at church.
An exciting and scary stage of my life had begun. I had compiled a huge list of questions and I wanted answers. Pronto. Part of it was because I was grieving and I needed comfort, but part of it was because I was genuinely curious. I wanted answers I could believe. I knew that there were so many potential places to find them but a fifteen year old can’t fly to foreign countries to speak with spiritual sages. A fifteen year old can’t ditch school on a whim to spend a week or two in the Holy Land. I had to think smaller-- more local.
And so I began my quest for truth at Barnes & Noble.
Many times I had walked into that bookstore and headed straight for the humor and fiction sections. Now, I was in search of something else. I found the store’s New Age aisle in the back of the building and saw shelves teeming with books that had my questions right in the title. I found books about the dying process, books that claimed to provide proof for the survival of consciousness, books about encounters with spirits and books that professed to examine the arguments of believers and nonbelievers alike.
I can’t say that I read all of the books in the New Age section. As I write this, there are still plenty I haven’t gotten to and new ones are published every day. But I can say that I was immediately hooked. My first day there, I leafed through many of the texts and carefully picked which ones I wanted to read. I prefer to believe that the books picked me instead. I brought them home and devoured everything in them. When I was done, I went back to the store and picked a few more. The process continues to this day.
Some of the books were written by people who had near-death experiences. Others were written by psychologists and spiritual leaders. And still others were written by mediums. These direct lines to the other side were part of a profession I had denounced in my youthful ignorance just three years earlier. By reading their books now I hadn’t necessarily changed my mind about what they did, but I was open to giving them a chance.
I wouldn’t want someone to attack me and call me the scum of the earth if they had never given me a shot to show them who I am and what I stand for. The least I could do was read what these mediums had to say. Maybe I’d come out of the experience with more evidence for a case against them. And maybe I wouldn’t.
At the height of my reading frenzy, “Crossing Over” was going strong in syndication. Edward had become a popular fixture on the daytime lineup with the likes of Oprah, Rosie and Montel Williams. His work was reaching more and more people every day. And soon enough, it reached me.
I found myself pulled back into the show, not by disgust but by wonder. I was amazed by the people Edward read. I was moved by their stories and gripped by Edward’s apparent accuracy. I had grown up a little and I was now mature enough to acknowledge the show for what it was.
I should note that I knew about the arguments against him and for a long while I believed them. But the more I watched the show, the less those arguments seemed justified.
Some people said that Edward’s whole crew was in on it. They claimed that before each show, his staffers passed out “family tree” cards to audience members which they were asked to fill out and turn back in before taping. This argument was not only insulting to the intelligence of Edward’s audience but in retrospect, seems more ludicrous than the notion that he can actually talk with the dead.
Other people argued that Edward used a trick called cold reading-- fishing for information from the audience and making it appear as though he was getting the answers from beyond. First, the only questions I ever saw Edward ask were usually yes or no questions. Second, he did most of the talking and preferred audience members to keep their mouths shut while he supplied the information. And third, a bulk of that information was as specific and personal as specific and personal get-- not the type of stuff one can pull off of a “family tree” card.
Still others claimed that Edward’s audience was filled with plants-- that the seemingly regular people who appeared on the show and shared their heartbreaking stories of loss, were in fact very good actors who arrived together in chartered vans and were paid to make Edward look the part.
I wasn’t quick to throw away the latter argument because for all I knew, Edward’s audience might have been filled with plants. My gut told me it wasn’t true, but after all, I wasn’t inside the studio. I was watching a polished product on television. Anything was possible. And if the show was edited, that meant it could be twisted in a million different ways to fit Edward’s agenda.
I had to remind myself of my own personal mission for truth. I knew I had to dig deeper.
That’s why I made sure I saw Edward in person without any cameras or fancy editing gimmicks. At two different seminars in Providence, Rhode Island, surrounded by predominantly older women, I, a teenage boy, watched in awe as Edward darted feverishly around the room, making connections and relaying information he couldn’t have gotten from anyone but the spirits he claimed he could speak to. People I had waited in line with were singled out and given messages by Edward in long, rich readings that brought the audience to tears. No one arrived in chartered vans. No one filled out any cards.
It was official. I was wowed.
But I wasn’t entirely convinced.
I had to meet Edward face to face. I had to shake the man’s hand for a second and look in his eyes. If he was truly for real, I knew I would sense his sincerity. So I met him at a book signing. And I sensed it.
And just to completely cover all grounds, I got in touch with Edward’s audience members through the magic of the Internet. I read their testimonies of the times they went to Edward’s studio and were read by him. These people were realer than real. They lived all over the country and had normal jobs. They certainly were not bred inside the Actor’s Studio.
In many ways, I had become a mediumship geek. I couldn’t get enough of the show or the books or the meditation tapes. In addition to all the physical and mental growing up teenagers endure, I was going through a spiritual growth spurt, too. Learning about after-death communication had become something for me that bordered on obsession. And it wasn’t a bad thing. It renewed my interest in my soul and brought me closer to my faith. Amid my hurried teenage life of school and work and friends, I was reminded of God every day.
But I had to confront another issue. How does a twenty-first century teen incorporate newfound faith into his life and remain “cool” at the same time? Let’s face it. Baseball and band and History Club are extracurricular activities. After-death communication is not. This was something I had to think about.
It wasn’t long before I figured that I didn’t have to change much at all. I would just keep living my life the way I had always lived it. I never talked much about my faith with friends before, at least not outside of church. And I saw no reason to do it now. I was excited about it, but not arrogant. To go on and on about the things I had learned and the beliefs I had incorporated into my faith would be too boastful and pushy, I thought.
I also thought it would turn people off and be a waste of time because faith is an intensely personal thing. I’ll talk about it if people ask-- if they’re truly open to learning about it. But I can’t make everyone believe the way I believe. I could talk to a skeptic about how real Edward is until the end of time, but my experience could never convince them. Only theirs could. Even I had to see and hear and touch things for myself to be convinced.
I carry what I believe-- my own personal truth-- with me wherever I go. It’s a belief that works for me but certainly not for everybody. It’s a lot like a prayer that I keep in my pocket. I know it’s there and I know its message, but I don’t have to pull it out and read it aloud every five minutes. It rests there quietly with a subtle power that propels me forward through life. And if I ever find myself in a situation in which I’m weak or unsure, I can reach in for it, breathe in its words and instill myself with strength.
I don’t believe that faith is necessarily something we must rave about to make real. It can be a subtle and powerful force for us simultaneously. Teens can be spiritual and at the same time have active, “normal” lives in school and work and with friends. Even amid all of the messages about what to buy, what to watch and how to act that we are bombarded with every day, are messages that encourage spiritual growth. In recent years, shows such as “Joan of Arcadia”, “Medium” and “Ghost Whisperer” have sprouted up with reminders of our inner spiritual nature.
Ways do exist for teens to find their own personal truth, or to balance the faith they already have, with an increasingly hectic schedule. They just have to keep their minds open, pay attention to their inner voice, and be willing to go wherever their journey takes them.
To borrow from a more modern television classic, “the truth is out there.” Don't be afraid to find the one that works for you.
Philip Devitt is a Communications major at Roger Williams University where he writes for the campus newspaper and hosts a weekly jazz radio show. He resides in southeastern Massachusetts and hopes to become a journalist.
Philip can be reached at TEPD16@AOL.COM