Why it’s time to open up my life Flat on My Back

At 27 years old, I’m not exactly in the position I envisioned for myself back when I was a narrowly focused 21-year-old ready to take the world by storm. Let’s just say life got in the way. Very quickly. A life-changing car accident that resulted in paralysis below the shoulders stopped my story as I knew it. On a dime. In the four years since, I’ve been on a journey hard to put into words. Incredible. Eye-opening. Frustrating. Rewarding. Humbling. Empowering. It would be tough to put my finger on it at any given moment, so I never really have, aside from documenting the journey in the solitude of my computer through my voice software. Sure, I’ve gotten to share my story over the past few years: speaking to groups, schools, and churches on numerous occasions; but it became fairly easy to hide what was really going on beneath the surface, behind a dramatic replay of a graphic car accident and a few Bible verses to make the crowd feel good.

I feel good

I keep tabs on the blogs of a few close friends. One focuses on social justice, one on life in seminary, one on great beer, and another on sports. Each are interesting in their own way, but the other day I came across a blog that really got to me from another guy who also has a spinal cord injury. I could not believe his vulnerability. As I sifted through his writing, I could not help but wonder, “Did he really just put that out in cyberspace?” I knew exactly how he felt and what he was thinking, but in my innermost being I felt it most socially acceptable in the name of “masculinity” to hide behind the facade that I was never fazed by my current physical condition.

About 10 years ago, Craig Gross came to my high school to talk about “the number one Christian porn site on the Internet”  (yes it is suitable to open at work). There was something that really drew me to the guy. The dude was as transparent as I’ve ever seen someone. He describes this critical attribute of vulnerability in his new book “Open“. Throughout the book Gross stresses how necessary it is for each of us as  human beings to be open with others in community. (Sounds like I read the book right? I didn’t. It just said something of that nature on the back cover. Somewhere my high school English teacher Ms. Barron is cringing.)

As my dad churned out devotional-worthy CaringBridge updates throughout my four-month stay in the hospital, my skin crawled as my motionless body laid still in the hospital bed. Even if it was simply generic content shared with family and friends, I would be wary of the idea of my day-to-day happenings being broadcast to the cyberspace world. On numerous occasions, both before and after the accident, friends have called me out for being a “closed book”.Locked book Staying mysterious about what’s going on in my head, and life for that matter, had become my M.O. However, over time, something just wasn’t sitting right. I guess I was missing out on a key element of human interaction described by CS Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, then you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket safe, dark, motionless and airless, it will change. It won’t be broken; but it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

This video sped along my thinking that being brutally honest with those around me actually isn’t that bad of an idea:

Jefferson says, “To be truly human is to be truly known, and someone who hides can’t be known.” It looks like I’ve been hiding. I guess it’s my turn. Time to open up. So here it goes…

What initially began on November 20, 2009 as what I believed would be a brief pit stop from the life I was accustomed to, transformed into a journey in which my world was turned upside down forever. I think it’s about time to let others in on my journey of being Flat on My Back.

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I wrote the perfect script for my life. Why isn’t God reading His lines?

I sat in my wheelchair in the middle of the football field in front of 35,000 people. University of Cincinnati alumni filled the stadium for the 2010 Homecoming celebration. My heart pounded
as we waited to hear the revealing of the Homecoming King and Queen.

Though I was one of the finalists, being crowned King was the last thing on my mind. I had been confined to a wheelchair for nearly a year and continued to believe God was going to do something miraculous to restore my mobility. Could this be my moment?

I envisioned myself stepping out of my chair onto the field in front of thousands. Clearly I had thought up the perfect PR move for God.

However, the day ended without any physical changes. I went home with a crown in the same paralyzed body I had arrived with that morning.

Was I disappointed? Not exactly. While it seemed like an amazing story in my mind, I just assumed an even better one was right around the corner.

My hope in the end of the story was unhindered. I saw example after example of miraculous healings in the pages of Scripture. I also noticed that the healings always seemed to have a greater purpose beyond the physical wellbeing of the individual, demonstrating God’s power to the masses.

Whether it be Jesus healing a paralyzed man in front of his biggest skeptics or waiting four days to raise his good friend Lazarus from the dead, the storyline was always epic and would be retold for generations.

Encouraged by these stories, I remained on the lookout for the next potential opportunity for God to perform an epic miraculous healing in my own life.

Admiral James Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam and spoke of how his hope fueled his coping strategy. He recounts, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life…”

My thought process was similar. In the months and years following Homecoming, numerous occasions presented themselves as opportunities in which I thought God may be lining up the puzzle pieces for a modern-day miracle.

At various speaking events, I wondered if the current audience would be the one to be able to say that they witnessed a paralyzed guy suddenly begin to walk. When people would lay hands on me in faith for healing, I considered that I may be just one prayer away from witnessing someone see their faith rewarded.

Would it be through a skeptical friend praying over me? Or when a dozen teenage guys pleaded with God to restore my body? Surely this would be a life-changing event to increase their faith for decades to come.

Year after year, I convinced myself there was no reason to accept my current physical reality as long-term. Healing was certainly right around the corner. Would it correspond with a significant milestone? Would college graduation coinciding with the start of a new job be how the story would unfold? Or would I be healed just before my wedding as Stephanie and I prepared to start our lives together?

Each year angst would creep in as I concluded that surely it was going to be the last birthday or anniversary of the accident in which my body remained in this state.

The same Vietnam POW who inspired me to never give up gave profound insight when he was asked about those who didn’t make it out of Vietnam:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Is that what I was doing? Was I being naively optimistic concerning a specific timeframe? Was I conjuring up my own “ideal” outcome with the limited view I had at a given time? Was all this just setting me up for disappointment?

I began to realize that somewhere along the way, my faith had shifted into reasoning. Rather than simply trusting God as Healer, I was constantly putting Him into a box that conformed to my logic. I was writing my own script for how my life should be going and wondering why He wasn’t reading the lines.

This was now the time to remember the vital truth of Isaiah 55:8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In hindsight, it’s always easy to see how God’s plan has been better than my own. As previous scenarios have failed to play out exactly how I envisioned, I have subsequently continued to learn and grow and get glimpses of a bigger picture.

So does this mean giving up on healing, or can a healthy balance be found?

Vietnam POW James Stockdale
POW Stockdale’s concluding thought on his circumstances is the balance I want to be cognizant of:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Maybe taking inventory of my current predicament would be wise. Are there areas I need to face head on in order to be able to move on to others? With the latest and biggest milestone in the rearview mirror, is it time to desperately grab hold of the next one or would some self-reflection be better?

I can still pray, I can still believe, while at the same time moving forward with life with its current obstacles. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

In the meantime, I continue moving forward, keeping in mind God’s faithfulness of the past and trust that his plan for my future far surpasses my own limited view.

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Should I “die with dignity” now or is there a better option?

I recently joined the ranks of teenage girls across America with my entertainment choice. The film on the screen? Me Before You.

This movie drew the intrigue of both Stephanie and I after numerous people compared our story to that of the film. As it turns out, there are quite a few parallels.

A guy has a vehicle accident resulting in paralysis below the shoulders. A girl arrives on the scene in a professional manner. A friendship develops. They fall in love.

In addition to the plot itself mirroring our own story, we were captivated by the fact that a movie was portraying both logistics and dynamics of our relationship that are not often represented anywhere outside of our own four walls.

We laughed knowingly when the girl spills soup into the guy’s lap while feeding him. The scene where she lathers his face with shaving cream and cautiously shaves his beard is a daily occurrence in our house. We could relate all too well to the part where his wheelchair got stuck in the mud.

However, the love story quickly takes a turn when the man ultimately decides he does not wish to continue living life in a wheelchair and elects to go through with assisted suicide.

After the initial shock of his decision wears off, the girl resolves to support him and even spends his final moments with him as he slips peacefully away. The movie ends with the girl in Paris, looking satisfied as she sips a cappuccino and smiles contentedly.

The insinuation is clear. In regards to the film, author John Stonestreet accurately stated, “Not only is death portrayed as better than living with a disability, but the ultimate act of love, for a person who lives with a disability, is death.”

What type of message is this supposed to send to me, others in my position, or to someone else dealing with a rough patch or dire prognosis? Give up? If life isn’t easy, it isn’t worth living?

Ironically, the marketing for this movie featured the hashtag #LiveBoldy. #DieQuicklyIfLifeGetsHard may have been more appropriate. It also sparked up much controversial conversation about what is considered “Dying with Dignity.”

If this is the dignified thing to do, is choosing to live gratefully in the face of hardship considered the opposite of dignity? Is taking life in stride, no matter what obstacles you come up against, considered disgraceful?

What if instead of looking for a way out, we allowed trials to teach us we are not in control and began to understand that there is a far greater purpose beyond our small little worlds?

We desire to avoid suffering at all costs, as if it has no use for us. The crazy thing is, this is exactly the opposite of what the Bible tells us. God tells us again and again that He will use our suffering for good, and in fact we are to take joy in it (James 1:2).

Amid pain, there remains a promise for those that don’t just throw in the towel. God promises great reward. According to James 1:12, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”

Our momentary happiness and comfort is not the point of life. God is more concerned about who we are at the end of our lives. Even if it is uncomfortable, God wants to make us mature and complete.

Are there days when I wonder what the point is and just want to throw my hands up and yell to God that I can’t take this anymore? When I wonder if he’s there or if he’s even listening? Absolutely.

But maybe that’s exactly what I need. To get to the point where I am out of options and can only look to God. Looking ahead to the unknown of a future completely out of my control may be daunting, but the rearview mirror shows time and time again how the hardest times built character, endurance and hope unlike anything else could have.

So while the media may portray suicide as merciful, dignified, and even romantic, I will continue to believe that there is always hope.

Since ending up in this position seven years ago, I’ve gained a new perspective and realized my need for Jesus. I’ve graduated college, interacted with some amazing people, met and married my beautiful wife, and we both believe the best is yet to come.

There is hope in the now, but more importantly, there is a sure hope in the future, which makes the time here on earth that much more critical to use wisely.

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Why did we bother getting married?

Twenty years after eyeing the cute girl with the big glasses on the playground, I had the opportunity to officially commit the rest of my life to Stephanie last month in front of our friends and family.

Watching my bride walk down the aisle toward me was the most surreal experience of my life. My heart pounded, my eyes glistened, and it was almost as if time stood still as I eagerly awaited her accompanying me at the front of the church.

We exchanged our written vows, added some extra bling to our fingers, and were officially introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Atkins for the first time.

The day itself was a lot of fun, but aside from enjoying an awesome party, what’s the point of getting married in the first place?

People change, trials inevitably arise, and that “in love” feeling has no guarantee of sticking around. So why bother committing for life?

Upon getting engaged last year we began reading the book You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity by Francis and Lisa Chan. The book focuses on the fact that marriage is indeed a temporary institution (“until death do us part”) and therefore leveraging it as a tool for God’s mission rather than for our own happiness.

This resonated with Stephanie and I, and we immediately began game-planning what marriage would look like for us. Where was God calling us? How would he choose to use us? We wanted to align ourselves as a team, ready to take on whatever may lie ahead.

In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a staunch opponent of the Nazi takeover of the German church and insisted upon protection of the Jews. He was ultimately hanged in a concentration camp for his involvement in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer is a prime example of a man who knew his life on this earth was meant to serve a greater purpose, and we get a glimpse into how this played out in what he believed marriage should look like. In a letter he wrote to his fiancée from prison, he stated:

“Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.”

As Stephanie and I embark on marriage together, we want to remember that our time on this earth is limited, and we want our marriage to reflect that by making the most of each day as a team, rather than getting so inwardly focused on our own comfort and pleasure.

That being said, marriage is amazing and we are already beginning to get deep glimpses into other aspects of the beauty of God’s creation of such a union:

Having a teammate to navigate life’s celebrations and storms

Looking Stephanie in the eye, committing my life to her, and enjoying the ensuing celebration was the perfect kick start to spending the rest of our lives together. However, after the excitement of the day itself is over, the challenges of life inevitably remain. While each “high” is even more enjoyable with my wife by my side, each “low” is made more bearable by having each other and by allowing for a deepened dependence on one another and on God.

Growing together as we acknowledge that our ideal scenarios may not always be in store

Sure, it’d be nice to have just returned from a carefree honeymoon to the beach and to not be reliant on a team of others to help us manage my physical body and the logistics of each day. Sleeping a full night without being awakened by muscle spasms and being pain-free would in fact be my choice if given.

However, while we live on this side of heaven we are not always going to understand what God is up to, but can continue to grow in perseverance and trust. We also continue to believe that better days are ahead, while intentionally seeking out what God may be trying to teach us in the meantime.

Getting a glimpse of God’s unconditional love

Our marriage is not only a contract, but a covenant before God that we will stick together no matter what life throws at us. I can be 100% vulnerable with Stephanie, knowing that even in all my insecurities, shortcomings, and flaws, she will choose to love me regardless and isn’t going anywhere. We believe that God has created this aspect of marriage to reflect his unfailing love for us.

Stephanie and I are learning that the less we focus on ourselves and our circumstances and the more we focus on the greater picture of what God has called us to as a team, the more we experience the benefits and beauty of marriage.

I want us to live out the last line of the vows that I spoke to Stephanie on our wedding day: “Let’s make the rest of our days count.”

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