04 June 2009

Thoughts on a Young Star....A&E's Ryan Buell

Been giving some thought to the A&E Network's series "Paranormal State" lately, and in particular the extraordinary Ryan Buell. Being over twenty years his senior, it is interesting to look at the poise and maturity exhibited by this young man, especially in relation to his own spirituality. I find myself wondering if he himself fully appreciates how unusual he is, and the value of that quality of personality for those who view "Paranormal State".

In an era where Christian belief is so uncool amongst the young, Mr. Buell wears his beliefs on his sleeve, not only unabashedly, but with a groundedness that is truly inspiring. Judging by his fan base, others are inspired too. Of course a good part of that enthusiasm is generated by the show itself - a surprisingly well-done reality-genre half hour, where several days of paranormal investigation is defty condensed into some twenty minutes of air time. (Buell is a co-producer.)

The first few times I watched the show, back in its first season (it has recently finished a third), I found myself caught between chuckling out loud, and fascination (... "is this guy old enough to shave, much less chase a ghost?") with these wide-eyed college students wrestling with technical equipment, and the grown-up psychological issues of clients who believe themselves plagued by spirits. But the more I watched the more I realized these kids are the real thing - putting many fly-by-night reality ghost-hunter shows to shame. The biggest reason is the leadership of Ryan Buell and the tone he seems to set for the group - one of skill, professionalism, ethics, dignity, and above all a concern for the suffering of the "clients" involved.

And over time I've noticed something even more interesting in Mr. Buell himself. . . and in order to address that, I need to share something personal here - which I try to avoid on this blog: When I was about Buell's age, I made a friend in a person about 40 years older than myself, whom I greatly admired. This person lived Christian spirituality, didn't just talk about it - but it was always a quiet lesson, never preachy . . . which is probably why as a young person I trusted it. One day as we were talking, I expressed frustration that there was so much spiritual wisdom I lacked, and so much I wanted. My friend said something to the effect, "If I had understood at your age what you do now, I would have gone so much further (in wisdom)..." This touched me deeply - this revelation that the admiration I felt was at least somewhat returned - and I never forgot those words.

At the same time, it frightened me a bit. My friend expressed belief that I myself was somehow put on earth to lead others around me - or at least look out for them. Over twenty years, that belief has led me to a life of serving in any way I can - a sort of calling. It's been rewarding - even joyous. But it's been hard, and has exacted a steep personal price and still does.

And so I watch Ryan Buell, and I'm intrigued, moved, terrified for him - for his life won't be easy. He is already giving so much of his heart. But the thing that fascinates me is the grace with which he does it, in a youth society where fitting in with one's peers and the prevalant social culture is all. He makes no apology, hides nothing of himself from cameras. At the same time, a brief read of his interviews suggests a real commitment to honoring other religious traditions in his work, working within the religious framework of the households in which he enters to chase some demon out, while never hiding his own convictions. I find the comfort level he shows - balancing personal commitment to a faith philosophy, while remaining completely non-threatened by those sometimes-contradictory philosophies of others - evidence of an astounding maturity in one so young. I wasn't so brave at that age.

And I think back to that conversation with my older friend. . . in my adult life, I have yet to meet a mentor who really inspires me spiritually, and frankly that has been a really lonely road. How odd now, to look at Buell as that friend must have seen me back then . . . and ah, if I had known then what Mr. Buell knows already, the things I could have done! And life goes by so fast, so little time to gain the wisdom we crave, so little time to use it the way we should - so little time to waste on cowardice. I sincerely hope for Ryan that his road isn't such a solitary journey as mine has been, that worthy mentors come along for him, that God uses him to his fullest potential.

In Buell, it's much more than bravery. Young people eagerly watch him, in spite of the Christian flavor to his personality - a flavor so abhorrant to so many of our youth, in this pro-humanist culture. How does Mr. Buell manage to charm them? I have to wonder if the key lies in his humility. This kid doesn't preach, doesn't even talk about Faith really. He wears it, he near becomes it in times of demonic troubles. At least in his public work, he lives it in his very quiet way. His faith is absolutely non-threatening because it never judges, never seeks to provoke others. Buell seems to see his faith as a tool for protecting himself and others, for bettering the lives of those suffering around him - a point of view in step with the original Christ view of relating to others - one that is so rarely understood or truly manifested in modern society. Whether you believe in ghosts and demons or not, watching "Paranormal State" you have to believe in Buell's sincerity and commitment to his mission.

And I have to wonder how young people who are viewing the show respond personally to the example of this simple faith as exhibited by Buell. He is a good-looking, well-spoken, educated, charmingly funny guy. He is modern, hip, speaks the language of mainstream youth (not some desperate, mean-hearted, foundering kid Bible-thumping and spewing Christian sound-bites the majority of which he hardly grasps the meaning. And how did we come to this feeling that Christian beliefs have to be LOUD to be valid and justified?) This isn't a kid using faith to shame his peers, to dominate, to demean, to scorn, to feel better about himself. And viewers surely sense it. I wonder if he understands that part of the reason his clients seem to be comforted by his presence is that Christ is standing beside him.

Viewers certainly sense a good-hearted, kind-hearted young man just hoping to light some small candle in the vast darkness of human suffering, with no desire for reward. And like me, they must see something extraordinary - a young man not preoccupied with looking at himself, but looking outward and leaning on Christ to help him do something about the pain he sees. His fearlessness is breathtaking.

Wow. Now THAT is a role model for youth.

Lord, protect Ryan Buell. Not only in the ways I'm sure he himself asks, but also protect him from himself - and from the inevitable changes coming from fame and success in one so young. Keep him humble and strong, so that he can fulfill his true destiny and continue to touch and change lives. And use him to show others that path home to you, wherein we all find real strength. Amen.

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