Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Doubt and Edgar Cayce

I recently read the Wikipedia article on Edgar Cayce. Between 1901 and his death in 1945 Cayce performed thousands of psychic readings, employing trances and channeling. Although he emphasized healing and otherwise helping the troubled he gained celebrity status for the unusual prophetic content of some of his readings.

Like anyone connected to the paranormal there is cloud over Cayce. Was he for real? Was he a fake? Was he lying? Was he crazy?

I'm not going to say these questions don't matter. Of course they do. As annoying and predictable as James Randi is I am thankful for some of the information he has publicized; newspaper horoscopes really are too vague to be meaningful and the spoon-bending guy was a cheap fraud. The more interesting question, I think, is what Cayce believed about himself. Then, based on that belief, what did he do?

This is where his prophetic statements about the relationship between ancient Egypt and Atlantis or Jesus being reincarnated are a terrible distraction. Cayce believed he was able to enter psychic/mediumistic trances for a reason; he could help people with them. Thus we have Cayce deciding in the early 1920's that not only did he only want to use his gifts in this way but that his readings only really worked when his intentions were strictly benevolent.

I have heard a number of discussions between people involved with paranormal investigation (AKA "ghost hunting") about groups investigating for the wrong reasons. One point of view is that investigations should only ever be done when, and in a way that, they benefit the property owner or resident. This makes total sense to me. If I had the ability to identify ghosts and perhaps encourage bothersome ones to relocate it would just make sense to use that to help people who believe their homes are haunted.

Why else ghost hunt? Because it's fun, or so I'm told. Exactly what goes on depends on who you talk to, but some investigation groups have been at it for 10+ years and report seeing some pretty amazing stuff.

If you want the buzz of being in a strange place at a strange time maybe urban exploration is a better fit for you. If you follow the ethics promoted by most urban explorers you aren't making any demands on anyone or doing any damage. To quote legendary Canadian urban explorer Ninjalicious, "Genuine urban explorers never vandalize, steal or damage anything — we don't even litter."

Although it's typically more legal than urban exploration I would argue ghost hunting is much more invasive and makes more demands on other people. To investigate someone's home is to be there for several hours, usually overnight and sometimes accompanied by dozens of cameras and other electronics. It may involve the resident sharing upsetting or personal information with you to guide the investigation.

Then, after you have gone over the pictures and recordings you will ask the home owner for something much larger. You will ask for their faith. You will ask them to believe you and your findings.

Given all of this, shouldn't the person opening their home to the investigators be able to expect something in return? Should they let a group into their home if they can't expect any insight or answers? If you can't offer that should you go in?

So, while the debunkers and true believers bicker about evidence I have a totally different question. Who cares about others? It appears that Edgar Cayce did, probably quite a lot.

Like a lot of other people I started paying closer attention to the paranormal only recently, partly because of TV shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer. Some episodes brought back memories. Others simply resonated as evocative human stories; the paranormal was just a plot device. That's when it hit me. It's not about the validity of any specific paranormal claim. It's about people.

I had two friends in college who saw things others did not. One, by the time I came to know her, didn't talk about it much. She had learned to keep it quiet. Like Edgar Cayce she was a devout Christian but her own church family had been negative and heavy handed when she shared her experiences.

The other friend chose me as one of the few people she shared her experiences with. She had learned from the mistakes of others in this regard. She saw people in an additional, apparently spiritual, dimension. She also saw various beings most of us did not. Sadly, I don't think she ever learned what any of it meant.

Today I am only in touch with one of them. She is a counselor. She has always wanted to help people.

I wonder what would have been different if these women had been encouraged and nurtured rather than shut down and intimidated? If the people around us had been less focussed on inscribing sharp, clear lines around truth and validity and more focussed on caring for people. . . Well, who knows. . .

I don't know what my friends saw or why. Then, our ability to figure it out was severely limited by fear and uncertainly--other people's and our own. It was the late 80's and we born again Christians. We were taught that we needed to be certain of things and that everything was either good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. The older Christians around us were pretty sure which side "seeing things" fell on.

I don't endorse or dismiss Edgar Cayce. Like my friends from college it appears that he saw things others did not. Unlike my friends he had, and took, thousands of opportunities to try to use that to help others. Good for him, and good for all the ethical ghost hunters, astrologers and psychics out there.

I can live with not knowing whether or not anything Edgar Cayce said was true.

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