I was talking with a woman last week at the United Church of Christ’s Annual Meeting where several thousand folks gathered in Indianapolis. As we were chatting at the United Church Homes’ exhibit booth, she was telling me that she just recently celebrated her 75th birthday and she was feeling older than she ever had.
I was surprised as she appeared quite energetic and active. My assumption was confirmed when she said she was making her second trip through massive Exhibit Hall. I asked her if she had any thoughts about why she might be feeling older.
Some years ago, she said she had developed a bucket list. I was curious about the items that were still on her list, so I asked. She exclaimed, “I have completed everything on my list!” After pondering for a moment, she added, “That’s the problem! I need a new bucket list! I need a new purpose!”
Purpose. We all need to have purpose and mission. As we age, purpose becomes even more important.
So, let’s first look at the big picture. Just what is a bucket list? “A bucket list is an itemized list of goals people want to accomplish before they “kick the bucket” — or die.” So says Dr. VJ Periyakoil, Founding Director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education & Training Program.
Yikes! Too Much Thinking About Death
Let me stop you right there Dr.P.! As we age, too many of us spend far too much time thinking about death—either worrying about it coming soon or trying to avoid it. So, let’s reframe it and call it a Life List, defined as a forward-looking itemized list of things we must accomplish.
I use the word “must” in order to add a sense of urgency to my list. Anytime I think, “I can’t do that thing on my Life List now because…”, I have to stop and look at my reasons for putting it off.
- Is it money? If so, what do I need to do to save enough money so I can reasonably do it in the next two, three, or four years.
- Is it something I prefer not to do by myself? Then who do I know who might be interested in the same thing? Do I need to talk with them so if they are interested, they can start planning now? I want to snorkel again in Australia at the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve done it once (thank you cousin Becky) but want to go back and spend more time there and also visit New Zealand.
- Is it time? If so, then how can I rearrange my life to give me the time to prepare for and do the thing on my Life List? I always find preparing for something exciting is at least half the fun!
- Is it something that will take a lot of practice? Playing Rhapsody in Blue on the piano is on my list so how much do I need to be practicing each week to make this happen considering I am only a mediocre pianist?
- Is the reason that all the voices in my head tell me my list is impossible? So maybe I need to talk with a counselor or spiritual director to develop a plan to shush those voices.
What else should be on my Life List?
Know and list your four or five most important life values. These values will help you in problem-solving, decision making, choosing actions, and in determining your purpose. Your values might include Honesty, Spirituality, Humor, Authenticity, Friendships, Learning and Knowledge, Creativity, etc. You can find a more exhaustive list of values at https://jamesclear.com/core-values. James Clear is the author of the bestselling book, Atomic Habits. First choose ten from the list. Then narrow it down to five. Include these on your Life List to help you remember who you are.
Do Something New
Make sure you include something on your list that you’ve never done before. And don’t worry about mistakes, Author Neil Gaiman writes, “If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you're scared of doing. Do it.” (That’s a bonus for you. You have permission to make mistakes!)
In the same vein is one of my favorite quotes, “Fill your life with adventure, not things. Have stories to tell, not things to show.” (Unknown)
Share Your List
Finally, share your list with a trusted partner, friend, or family member. Do you want them to ask you about the progress you are making on your List or do you just want them to remain quiet and pray for you? Do you want an accountability partner or a prayer partner?
Dr. Periyakoil also recommends sharing your Life List with your doctor. She says, for her, “knowing patients’ bucket lists is a great way to get them to adopt healthy behaviors. I found that saying, “I don’t think your half marathon is happening anytime soon if you don’t quit smoking” got my patient’s attention much faster than making obvious and boring statements like, ‘Smoking is bad for you’.” Most importantly, she says, knowing her patients’ bucket Life List goals has prevented her from implementing medical interventions that undermine the goals, such as timing of treatment.
So what is on your Life List? I do pray my friend from the Annual Meeting created a new list for herself and has found new purpose and new reasons to be excited about looking ahead to the future.
For Reflection (either individually or with a group)
Read the blog. Read it a second time, maybe reading it aloud or asking someone else to read it aloud so you can hear it with different intonation and emphases. Then spend some time with the following questions with anything that helps you reflect more deeply. Take the questions for a walk in the woods or in your neighborhood, for a swim or a run or for a hot soak in the tub. Invite the questions to join you for tea.
- What would you say is your purpose in life?
- What are the things on your Life List that are connected to your purpose?
- What are the things on your Life List that are there to bring you joy and new experiences?
Download a pdf including the Reflection Questions to share and discuss with friends, family, or members of your faith community small group.