What are you going to do with the time you have left?

I read an article on CNN this past week about a man who was left paralyzed after falling 16 feet. He was faced with a decision to make after learning from doctors that his chances of full recovery were slim to none. Did he want to continue on living when odds were that he would not regain his mobility? His decision was an emphatic no, and he asked doctors to disconnect him from the ventilator. He died at the age of 32, leaving behind a wife who was pregnant with his child.

His wife spoke to the root reason behind his decision: “The last thing he wanted was to be in a wheelchair. The quality of life would have been very poor.” There may have been more to the story than a brief news article let on, but from a surface level, I was deeply saddened by his decision.

I have been asked a similar question multiple times. People are curious as to if I would have rather died in the car accident than live in the condition I currently do. I touched on the answer to this in “The fleeting nature of positive thinking,” but I would be amiss if the story did not cause me to reflect again on how thankful I am for life itself.

Grateful to be alive in the ICU just days after my accident
Grateful to be alive in the ICU just days after my accident

Over the past four years, God has been challenging me to reexamine my priorities and, consequently, has gradually reshaped my view on what denotes a “good quality of life.” That begs the question: What am I going to do with the time I have left?

Being forced to slow down from the business of the nonstop college life as I knew it has caused me to ask questions and reevaluate how I’m allocating my time. After taking inventory on how I spend my time and what I allow to consume my thoughts, there are certain aspects that I can point to and wonder: Does this really matter?

I am challenged by Matthew Kelly’s statement on the topic in The Rhythm of Life: “What are we all too busy doing? For the most part, we are too busy doing just about everything, that means just about nothing, to just about nobody, just about anywhere…and will mean even less to anyone a hundred years from now.”

My time left on this earth is limited, regardless of how much of that time will be spent in a wheelchair. Many times I get frustrated at the amount of time taken away from my days simply because of paralysis. On top of being incredibly humbling, having someone assist me with getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed, and eating breakfast seems to take an eternity compared to doing the same at 21-years-old in my fraternity house on the way to class. With less hours to leverage each day, it is often tempting to make excuses for not making good use of the time I do have.

Jonathan Edwards, a pastor from the 1700s, came up with 70 resolutions for living life effectively. One that sticks out to me is: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.” Talk about a man with a plan for efficiency.

I wonder how profitable the time Edwards spent on his hair was
I wonder how profitable the time Jonathan Edwards spent on his hair was

Edwards’ objective may seem extreme, but the more I realize how limited my time here is, the more practical this advice seems. When I look to the Bible, I see time and time again references to how fleeting this world is. My life is portrayed as “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14). I’m reminded that the time is short, this world is passing away, and I am to live always consciously with that in mind (See 1 Corinthians 7:29 – 31).

Paralyzed or not, I want to take advantage of every moment I have now. I don’t want to just sit around accepting my circumstance, letting the days idly pass by as if to say, “Looks like I had bad luck in this life. Hopefully the time speeds up so I can just hurry up to heaven.” Instead, I want to invest in life-giving relationships, learn more about the world around me, leave an impact that continues beyond my last breath, and experience God’s kingdom on earth as much as possible before I meet him face-to-face in heaven having run the race of life to the fullest. In doing so, I believe I will find deeper meaning in the days ahead, as I’ve learned “quality of life” does not have to depend on physical capabilities.

This video breaks down how our time is spent, and ends with an incredible challenge:

Donald Miller, author of A Million Miles in A Thousand Years, a narrative that has challenged me to live a better story with the time I have, said, “Our lives have a countdown clock that we can’t see. Mine reminds me to only do what matters”. I am thankful that my life did not end in a car accident or in the days thereafter, and thus, my countdown has not completed, but I know that the clock is ticking. How will I spend the time I have left?

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I’ve come a long way since being in a coma

Earlier this month I sat around the TV in my basement with a group of guys watching the Cincinnati Bengals game on Monday night football. The food was great, the camaraderie even better. Nothing like arguing over an array of pointless sports-related issues with guys during a football game. In the moment though, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the evening had to be catered toward me due to my physical limitations. I would have preferred not having to rely on a friend to feed me. It would be nice to join in the high-fives after a touchdown rather than leave my motionless arms resting in place by my side while others jostled around the room. It also would have been ideal to not be restricted to my parents’ basement since my wheelchair cannot get into other friends’ houses.

Then the thought hit me like a wrecking ball: I should be on a feeding tube.

Multiple times along the journey over the past few years I have been reminded of a quote that became embedded in my mind after seeing it each day at the the spinal cord injury facility, where I had physical therapy when I returned home:

“Do not focus on the road ahead without remembering the distance already traveled.”

On November 20, 2009, the night my car flipped off the side of the highway and I was airlifted to the hospital, the emergency room doctor on staff was quick to tell my parents that I had sustained a Christopher Reeve type injury. The ensuing medical prognosis was that I would be dependent on a feeding tube and a ventilator to breathe, while being unable to move anything below my shoulders…for the rest of my life. Talk about instilling hope from the get-go.

This picture gives a glimpse into how bleak my situation may have looked to an outsider. This was taken over two months after the accident, exhibiting immense weight loss, muscle atrophy, and skin as white as a ghost:

While I gained a great amount of weight and muscle back I still haven't found the answer for the paleness four years later
While I have since gained a great amount of weight and muscle back I still yet to find the answer for the paleness

For weeks after the accident, I was not only unable to move anything below my shoulders; I could not talk, I could not eat, and I could not breathe on my own. For those wondering, I enjoy doing all three of these things quite a bit.

After two months, I managed to get off the ventilator, but it was a round-the-clock marathon as respiratory therapists put me through the ringer to strengthen my lung power in order to enable me to breathe independently. After three months of being unable to eat, doctors and speech therapists had no explanation for a miraculous event that took place over a weekend in which I went from struggling to get ice chips down on Friday to enjoying Eggplant Parmesan the following Monday. (Hospital food never tasted so good).

I was told that any movement I was going to regain would return within the first few weeks and that after this brief window closed there wouldn’t be much more hope for any physical recovery. However, immense breakthrough has continued to take place nearly four years after the hopeless prognosis. A few portions of that are recorded in this video:

This progress has been nothing short of miraculous. While this movement is far from complete restoration, God says to not despise small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10), and in fact to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18.). “All circumstances” includes the simple joy of being around friends watching football while not losing sight of how far God has brought me to this point, regardless of whether or not I can yet feed myself or exchange a high-five.

It’s interesting how so many times in life, I will focus on what I don’t have, what I can’t do – instead of what I have, what I can do, and what I’ve been blessed with. While I currently may be limited with what I can do physically, I do not want take for granted basic life luxuries such as talking, breathing, and eating.

It may not always be easy, but when I am able to genuinely thank God for the distance traveled rather than worry about what’s ahead, what is missing from a physical standpoint in the moment begins to minimize. Giving thanks in all circumstances keeps my focus on God and how far he’s brought me, and doesn’t allow me to fixate on what’s lacking. However, this doesn’t mean that I just sit content and accept my physical circumstance as permanent – as the doctors may have said. I know nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26) and he is still able to do far beyond anything I can imagine.

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Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans

As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”

Did I really just quote Mike Tyson?
Did I really just quote Mike Tyson?

If you asked me at 21 what my future held I would tell you to take a seat and be prepared to hear about what I saw in the future as the quintessential picture of success: ME. It would involve accumulating gobs of money by whatever means possible, traveling the world, living on a golf course, and making a great name for no one aside from myself.

I was on a full ride scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, working a high paying internship, and enjoying everything that came with life as a college student. At 21 years old, I thought what could be better?

That was before I got my figurative punch in the mouth in the form of my car flipping through the air, eventually leading me to realize my plans were all for naught.

On November 20, 2009, I was headed to Gatlinburg, TN with my fraternity brothers when a simple overcorrection of my steering wheel produced a freak accident. A fracture of my C3/C4 vertebrae causing a spinal cord injury deemed it necessary to be rushed to the hospital by helicopter in critical condition. I spent the next couple of weeks physically fighting to stay alive, yet mentally expectant to get back on with the life I knew as a junior at my beloved university by the start of the new year. Much to my dismay, I soon realized my world had been turned completely upside down. After a diagnosis of paralysis below the shoulders and a four month stay in the hospital, I returned home to live with my parents; as I was now completely dependent on other people to take care of me.

Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I’m not sure that’s the most biblically sounding translation but it sure seems to fit with James 4:13 – 15:

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

The idea of "future success" seemed to be slipping away
The idea of “future success” seemed to be slipping away

I guess at 21 years old, there really wasn’t the foresight to envision living in a handicap accessible renovated room that used to be my parents’ bedroom. For some reason, having other people take care of all my basic needs throughout the day from clothing me, to brushing my teeth, to feeding me had never been on my radar (at least not until I was 90 years old). I was frustrated, to say the least. I wanted nothing more than to get back to my life as a busy college student focused on laying the groundwork for my future success.

However, I was caught off guard by what began to unfold. It also had not been on my radar to ever actually consider what God’s plans were for me and that they actually might be better than the plans I had for myself with my limited world view. In a gradual process over the past 4 years, I have begun to experience the truth in the claim of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In some mysterious way, “all things” includes unexpected car accidents, wheelchairs, and outcomes that I never could have fathomed as a 21 year old.

I do not know what tomorrow holds but I do know that God continues to miraculously redeem what looked to be a bleak situation from the moment I sat unconscious in my silver Envoy on the side of the highway in southern Kentucky. Time and time again God has put just the right person in my life, presented me with new challenging opportunities that have stretched me tremendously, or given the perfect encouraging breakthrough to keep me going another day, reminding me that I have not been deserted and He has everything under control. The lyrics, “Constant through the trial and the change, one thing remains” in the song below sum up what I have come to realize more than ever:

So while what I envisioned for myself at 25 years old did not come to fruition (thankfully for me and those around me), I have been on the journey of a lifetime over the past four years. Though from an outsider’s view my situation may seem to be a tragedy, I would consider it anything but. I have had a front row seat to God working and weaving each piece of a puzzle together and only he knows what the final product will look like.

Slowly but surely, my priorities have transformed, my outlook has expanded, and I know without a doubt the best is yet to come. The story that is unfolding may not be my original plan, but what is beginning to take shape seems a whole lot more appealing and I have never been more excited for my future. This story is not over yet.

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