“My feelings about art and my feelings about the creator of the universe are inseparable… it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” Madeleine L’Engle
So, what gives your life “its tragedy and glory?” For L’Engle, she ultimately desired to bring glory to the creator of the universe through the life she lived, but how did she do this? She wrote novels of fiction from her experiences and imagination, to allow people to simply enjoy and gain new perspective on what it means to be human. She took wisdom from her years of life, then transcended them into concepts that would impact readers, not just on the surface, but also on an existential level.
The quote that you first read, comes from one of her novels called “Walking on Water”, where she explains what it’s like to live a life of faith and pursue the extraordinary life of an artist. Now, in my own words, I will attempt to find my reason for what brings my life its tragedy and glory. Along the way, I hope you will find your answer as well.
What I mean by this, is that the faith I have in the creator of the universe, will bring His glory to my twisted tragedy that I live as a human being. That He will bring goodness and beauty to my sinful story. It’s that simple, and in this simplicity, there is a beautiful, chaotic sophistication about it. As I continue to walk in this life, I have found that there is beauty in simplicity, but there is also beauty in the chaos of sophistication. Sometimes the simplest of answers, will require you to discover the chaos and the cosmos that is held within.
With this truth, I don’t want people to simply accept or reject these ideas, but rather I want them to test and approve this possible truth for themselves. Living with this desire as the forefront of my passion, consequently brings positive and negative ailments to my story. What I mean by this, is that the life I live, will be nothing like what I expect it to be.
Up until now, the majority of my life has been lived with Christ, and from this, I can safely say that living a life with Christ is far from the idea of ‘normal’. From the places I’ve seen, people I’ve met, lives that touched me, experiences I’ve faced; never would I have thought that my existence would look like this.
But now, you’re probably asking yourself the question of, “What possibly could be the “negative” ailments to your life?” Before I continue onto these proponents, I must say that the negative ailments I’ve faced are no more different than anyone else’s; we all experience pain and we all suffer, the most noticeable difference within this, is the type of pain and suffering that we experience and how we cope with it.
Up until the age of 16; the perspective of driven optimism marked my life. Nothing I had faced or experienced as a child or teen, was that of anything that would alter my perspective on how I would live day to day. I had walked through life with the mentality that God is good, living is easy, and I am here to make the most of it. Sure, I went through a typical teenage liveliness of getting into trouble and my parent’s grounding me, ‘break ups’ (they were never relationships, but each one ended like they were), broken bones; you get the picture. But on the night of July 20, 2012, my esprit of walking with God had changed forever. The Aurora Theatre shooting completely shattered my perspective on what it means to have a heart driven by optimism.
Somehow I escaped from this crippling tenet and I ran. In this time of running, I chose to live my life the way I pleased, away from the One who wanted to do life with me. I ran to momentary pleasures that would allow me to escape the reality of my life, but that’s the calamity of it all, each pleasure was a momentary escape, never a cure.
After searching and falling short time and time again, I decided that I would end my life. The emotional, physical, and mental dilemmas that I was experiencing, were far too great of a feat for me to handle. I had thought that nothing on this earth could save me… and I was right, but someone who overcame the world could. As I was on my deathbed, contemplating the how of my life, with tears running down my face; God spoke to me. I knew it was He because of the simple, compassionate, and still small voice that spoke to me. He told me that my life could positively impact somebody one day, but out of my own freewill, I would have to make a choice on whether to live or die.
At the time, it didn’t seem very compassionate of God, the One who dearly loves me, to say that I had the choice about my life; I expected Him to swoop down and hold me in His arms, to let me know it would all be okay, but there is something that God has blessed us with called Freewill. It’s the phenomenon of making my own decisions in life and accepting whatever consequences (good or bad), that will follow. Up until this point of my history, I knew and had head knowledge of His most prominent characteristic being love, but I was lacking of this truth in my heart.
Because of this head knowledge, I knew that no matter what I would choose to do, He would still love me. Whether I chose death or life, His devotion for me would never change (but that is no excuse to begin living a life of sin). By now, you can probably guess which path of existence I chose. My reason for this option, was because my time on this earth hadn’t had meaning except for what I thought was to suffer, but now knowing that my traumatic season could impact somebody one day, to have a purpose; that was enough of a reason for me to continue on through the pain.
In the years that I was absent in my relationship with God; I gained insight on things that I could never have learned if I were still with Him. My time away from the light, taught me what it was like to live in the darkness. The amazing thing is, as I thought I was running away from God, He was actually running after me. He sought after my heart, wanting to restore the brokenness and help pick up the pieces, to put me back together. After a grueling four years through all of this, I had finally decided to let God back in.
Since then, in times of introspection, I now understand the darkness and appreciate the light much more because of it. Like I said, my purpose in the days that I’m given on this earth, is to bring the light of truth to the lies of darkness. I went from a cave, living as a shadow in the dark, hiding from people who wanted good things for me, to a now, bright lighthouse on a hill, desiring to bring the light of truth to those who are caught in the fog of life. In other words, God has brought His glory to the tragedy of my story. My faith in the creator of the universe did exactly what I had hoped He would do.
Now a new question arises, “I thought you just said you didn’t want to be with God?” You’re right, I didn’t, but apart of me wanted to be with Him. My flesh of sin wanted to resist God, but my spirit of truth wanted to be with Him. Confusing, right? Paul, a traveling evangelist writes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” What Paul is getting at, is this idea that we are sinners, yet we are saints. Why do I do the things I know I shant do?
How do I solve the problem of self? Who am I? These questions lay dormant in the story that I live out day to day; in the scripts I write, films I create, words I choose to use. It’s the chaos within the cosmos; the wisdom to know that which I fully am and the strength to accept that fact of my enigmatic ways. David, the once King of Israel wrote, “For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.” We, I, are Homo sapiens; man who ponders thought. The One who created thought, knitted the fabric of our very souls in the wombs of our mother’s. By the breath of His lungs and the fire of His spirit, He forged man and woman with the essence of His love.
The last part of tragedy is this: to know that we were meant for so much more in life, but our beautifully sophisticated, paradoxical selves chose (out of our own freewill) to live within not just the cosmos anymore, but also in the chaos. As humans, we were never supposed to endure the pains and sufferings of the lives that we now live in the chaos. We were called to live a life with the Creator of the universe in the cosmos. Now, there are bits and pieces of both beautiful divines that we experience day to day.
Faith and myself, the tragedy and glory. To know the meaning of my existence; the why for my sufferings, and the wisdom to understand that who I was, am, and will be, is precisely the way I should be. I am a conscious, yet beautifully sophisticated paradox that chooses to live within the chaos and the cosmos, to bring glory to my Creator, and tragedy to self.
This is my story, this is who I am. A conscious child of God, who is beautiful, sophisticated, and paradoxical; called to live my life in an intimate relationship with Him, so that He may use the tragedy of my life, to bring glory to Him so that all may see, so that all may know, who they too, are; a beautifully sophisticated paradox, living amongst the chaos and the cosmos, in need of a Savior, who brings glory to their tragedy.
So, I leave you with this, “Sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty, but also in the its great and very simple dignity: created to be the child of God, and capable of loving something of God’s own sincerity and his unselfishness.” Thomas Merton
I now challenge you to go out and discover for yourself, the truth and meaning to your life.
Trust in the timing of your life. It’s a phrase that has become my anthem.
A mere few months ago I flipped my tassel from my safe haven of college to the terrifying unknown of the working world. With that single transfer on my graduation cap, I ended one journey and braced myself to begin another.
It all reminded me of the last time I flipped a tassel: my high school graduation. Coming from a tiny private school I had no idea what to expect from college. I knew what I thought I wanted: small, liberal arts school with an emphasis on creativity. Instead, I was handed a huge state university with an emphasis on football, day drinking, and more buses than I’d ever seen in my life. To say the least, I was terrified.
Today, I love UGA with all my heart. But I must confess that I cried the day I signed my commitment, and they were not tears of joy. It was my second-to-last back-up school but free tuition (shoutout to my man Mr. Zell Miller) was too good to resist. Visions of drunk rednecks ran through my brain, hooting and hollering as they waved red and black flags. I couldn’t imagine how I, a conservative goody-two-shoes, would fit into such a place.
But on my first day of orientation, I made a promise to myself: I vowed to be happy here, no matter what. And that’s exactly what I did. That choice made all the difference, changing my attitude and allowing me to see what UGA really was.
And thus began four of the best years of my life, meeting my best friends, becoming involved in incredible organizations, and growing exponentially in my identity and sense of self. (Spoiler alert: I’m no longer conservative or quite as much of a goody-two-shoes). I learned to love cheering for the Dawgs, sweat dripping down my sundress, dehydrated lungs bursting with the chants of the Redcoat band. The cries in that stadium were, for me, an anthem to my love for Athens and for the people who made it home.
And so, as I embark upon this next journey, I am equally hesitant. My tears are not tears of joy. I’m told to “pursue my dream,” even though I have no idea what that may be. The real world looms overhead, bringing with it loads of dollar signs and decisions.
It’s times like these that question us, push us forward, and challenge us to find what we truly stand for. Who are we really? What do we want? How will we change the world? Those are some of the simplest yet hardest questions of humankind. The kind we dedicate a lifetime to searching for the answers.
The universe, or God, or whatever you believe in, placed me where I needed to be four years ago, transcending even my best attempts. That same force will place me where I belong for the next four years. In the midst of this terrifying unknown, that is one thing I know for certain.
Trust in the timing of your life. You are where you are meant to be. Be at peace with that. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
As a filmmaker, entrepreneur, and journalist, I feel I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of fascinating experiences since I’ve graduated from college.
I’ve been invited to speak coast-to-coast from the National Press Club to Stanford Medical School. My film, Forgotten Plague, which tells the story of a disease called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) has been hailed a “Must-See Documentary” by The Huffington Post. Each week I might be meeting a U.S. Senator, talking to world-renowned scientists, meeting with CDC officials, or speaking on the radio. But most of what I’m sharing on social media only represents half the story.
Beneath that thin façade of success, there is a much more sinister and grim reality that my team and I live with every day, plagued by the universal notion that there is no magical formula for success other than hustle, 12-14-hour days, and knowing the greatest success in any early business is to fight hard enough so that the organization survives at all. The bad days, of which there are many, are best left forgotten, and the failures are never Instagrammed.
The only way to get more funding for our film production was to cultivate an image of success and not report to our donors how often we come within a hair’s breadth of failure. Some days it’s the specter of IRS late fees, other days it’s a disastrous contract negotiation, still other days it’s the threat of a global boycott of our film for some perceived slight we committed. I know each week to expect some new challenge that could torpedo our company.
This is the story of perhaps our most dire day: February 21, 2014, when we were filming our documentary in Boston, a thousand miles from home. That day it wasn’t just our film or our company on the line.
I’d been experiencing significant chest pain for weeks, and the strain of running a two-person film crew on a hectic national schedule was leaving me gasping for air, barely able to stand, and in so much chest pain that the emergency room was the only solution.
We were leaving to go wait for a taxi in our hotel lobby. “Wait,” Nicole said, heading back into the hotel room. “I need to get something.” She emerged with her camera around her neck. I hadn’t the strength to care that the cold, unblinking lens, which had recorded countless interviews with others, would now be turning its gaze on me.
Nicole filmed nearly every second of our trip to the emergency room. She filmed as I cowered in a chair in the hotel lobby. She was shooting as I leaned against the taxicab window in the fetal position. She was right next to me rolling as I stared into space, shirtless, laying in a hospital bed with electrodes on my chest, while nurses rushed to discover whether or not I was having a heart attack.
My ultimate diagnosis was pericarditis, an inflammation of a sac around the heart caused by herpes viruses and cocksackie viruses. Ostensibly it is caused by a pathogen, but I knew entrepreneurial burnout was the real diagnosis.
My beating heart had swollen to capture and carry the stories of hardship of thousands around the world. Now those horrors threatened to tear me apart not just emotionally, but also physically. The whispering voices of sufferers were a chamber orchestra just off one of my ventricles, beating an off-kilter rhythm you could now hear with a stethoscope.
That episode made the final cut of our documentary, and became one of its most gripping sequences. But what didn’t make it into the film was a scene equally heart-stopping. And yes, I do mean that literally.
Around 2 am, the ER staff concluded I wasn’t dying, and was therefore clear for discharge with some over-the-counter painkillers. I got up from the hospital bed to go find Nicole. A nurse was wheeling Nicole on a bed coming straight toward me. “Odd, yet fun,” I thought, that the nurses must be putting people on wheeled beds and staging races in the halls.
But Nicole’s face was pale, blank. She didn’t return my smile. The nurse docked her in an alcove, half a dozen more staff poured in, and they snatched the curtains shut around them.
A few more ran in. I figured someone just hadn’t hooked up the electrodes up correctly. I peaked up over the top of the curtains to try and comfort her with a goofy Bullwinkle grin amid the pandemonium.
She stared blankly, didn’t even recognize me. She was a ghost of her normal self.
I thought to myself, I should be filming this. But Nicole’s camera was still around her neck, blocked by a fierce squadron of ER nurses. This probably wasn’t a great time to grab it.
For several long moments, I watched figures scrambling behind the curtain, until finally, there were faint beeps as her heart rate reached into the zone of 40 beats per minute.
A few minutes later Nicole was cognition, and color. “I’m fine, we need to go home,” she tried to convince them.
“Finding people passed out in the floor of the bathroom isn’t fine,” the nurse retorted. “You were standing and you just hit the deck. We have to keep you for examination.”
Recently, in recounting the story, Nicole told me, “There have only been a few times in my life where I felt, with absolute certainty, that I was dying. That was one of them. As I was lying there, in the bed, I had two thoughts. The first was that I was dying. The second was, ‘Wow, the nurses don’t very good poker faces.’ I was very, very frightened. But I could tell in their faces there were just as frightened.”
Her condition, I learned, was called vasovagal; it is characterized by a sudden drop in heart rate, which leads to fainting. Medical textbooks say it is often caused by a stressful trigger, an example of which might include seeing your best friend admitted to the ER for chest pain in the middle of night, thousands of miles from home, while at the same time you have little to no extra money and no one to turn to.
After, being released from the ER, I fell asleep on a bed outside her room. She wasn’t released until 6 am. We went back to the hotel room, canceled all the shoots for the next day, and slept.
Rattled, and in need of advice, I called my mother, a nurse, and she called her father, a doctor. Remarkably, both advised us to take a day off and continue our trip, the next leg of which included lugging our equipment to a bus station to travel to New York City for a few more days of shooting.
I suppose that simple decision, to board that bus to New York, perfectly encapsulates the other half of entrepreneurship that you don’t always hear about. Even after a harrowing, near-death experience, you take a bit to collect yourself, punch your ticket, and carry on with the next leg of your journey.
The world isn’t there to see your shaky arms thrust the trunk of cinematic lighting equipment into the cargo bay and to mount the steps up into the bus, but those are the moments when you begin to feel you might just be actually earning whatever little success may come your way.
There is, and always will be, only one magical formula. And that is grit.
Against the odds, Ryan became a reporter and documented his story of suffering and unlikely recovery after contracting a disease doctors had trouble diagnosing, let alone treating, known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome).
It is a personal narrative that catches a glimpse into the failures in our medical system, yet also a captivating story of the ability of science to transcendentally improve medicine and human life.