It was like being in a blender. That’s how my friend Ryan Oliver Hansen, a student at the University of Utah, describes returning home to the United States after spending seven months as a volunteer at an orphanage in Ecuador. Life in America was a far cry from his life with the orphans of the Loreto Children’s Home. Living in a Third World orphanage, “Every minute spent doing what matters most'loving and serving'singing and dancing was a gift,” he says.
As soon as he returned to Salt Lake City, his life became instantly chaotic with the expected pressures that come with juggling school, work and internships. How, he wondered, would it be possible to live in this culture and not get caught up in its St. Vitus Dance of busyness and irrelevance?The contrast between his simple life of charity and American culture hit him especially hard as he stood in a check-out line at the grocery store, where magazine and tabloid covers bombarded him with news of Britney Spears’ love life, Oprah’s fluctuating weight, Michael Jackson’s trial and a sea of other trivialities that left him gasping for air. His own culture was a meaningless, fast-paced, shallow dance of forgetting and denial. What did the people on the tabloid covers matter in the general scheme of things? He had lived with orphans who loved and needed him. Life in the land of excess could never be satisfying again.
The transition plunged him into a major meltdown. After being unable to crawl out of bed for several dark days, a friend from Kenya helped him find his way out of the blender. “I have everything I need,” he told her, “but I still feel depressed.” She told Ryan that in Kenya they didn’t have the concept of depression. Maybe, she suggested, neurosis was a luxury of middle classes. She urged him not to focus on his grade point average and other trappings of success, “but to put happiness first.”That’s when Ryan developed a new philosophy that boiled down to five basic questions: “Am I safe? Am I healthy? (That is a reason to smile.) Am I fed? Do I have people who love me and people for me to love? (Giving love is a reason to rejoice.) Am I doing something constructive? (It doesn’t have to be saving the world. It could be reading a book, writing a letter.)
“If I can answer ‘Yes’ to these questions, it puts everything into perspective,” he told me over lunch. The five questions have become a mantra. Am I safe, am I healthy, am I fed, do I have people who love me and people I love, am I doing some good? Five questions to still the chattering and quell anxieties.
He still misses the orphans who called him “Uncle.” The confusion and bewilderment of parting with them continues for him today, even though his mother helped by reminding him, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” Now, he calls his time in Ecuador “a personal miracle.”
Ryan Oliver Hansen is somewhat of a miracle himself. A 24-year-old with a dancer’s body, a keen conscience, a heart that could encompass a village, a wisdom beyond his years and a sincere commitment to leaving the world a better place than he found it, Ryan is a rarity in the consumer culture that sucks the lifeblood out of most Americans. When he finishes an internship with KUED in September, Ryan will head to Cameroon, Africa, to help orphans with AIDS and champion women’s rights.
Mary Dickson is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City.