Bucket lists

I’ve written before about bucket lists. I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but it certainly became far more common in the popular lexicon after the release of the 2007 movie about two terminally ill men who leave a cancer ward to pursue a list of adventures they want to complete before they die. From time to time, people will tell me that there are things on their bucket lists: take a cruise, buy a certain kind of car, visit a particular destination. The lists are as varied as the people with whom I work.

The interesting thing is that people rarely talk in terms of bucket lists when they are facing a life-ending disease. That is a place where my experience differs from the plot of the movie. I know lots of people who would like to go on a few fantastic adventures. The chance to drive a race car or go on a safari in Africa or visit the Taj Mahal or see Antartica are appealing to people, but when they really come face to face with their own mortality, those items seem to fade from the priority list. Relationships with friends and family take center stage in the face of the end of life.

I suspect that making a bucket list has far more to do with living than with dying. People make bucket lists as an expression of what they want to do while they are living and as a reminder that sometimes it takes a shift in priorities to do discover what is really most important. People tend to get stuck in ruts and find themselves caught in patterns of behavior that don’t reflect their true values and an occasional look at their priorities can make a difference in their quality of life.

Three are several people with whom I am close who are receiving treatment for aggressive forms of cancer. Their illnesses have re-defined their lives. Chemotherapy treatments consume time and energy. All kinds of things in their lives have to be re-ordered to make time for the process of medical treatment. They have to be wise in their decisions about what to do with the few remaining moments when they have energy and spirit for other activities. It is a distinct honor that some of them choose to spend time with me.

We talk about a lot of subjects, but there aren’t many talks about going sky diving or taking raft trips down the Grand Canyon. We talk of plans to attend a daughter’s graduation or a granddaughter’s wedding. We talk about on-going projects that need to be completed and other projects that need to be handed off to another person. We talk about philosophy and religion and scripture and faith. We talk about resurrection.

Years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who loved to travel to exotic locations. He would work long hours at whatever job he could obtain, live as simply and inexpensively as possible and, after some months, or sometimes a couple of years, he would quit his job and head off to some distant part of the world on an adventure. I asked him how that worked in his life and received a fairly direct and simple answer. He selected a trip and destination and got as much information as he could about the cost. He would set a goal, usually somewhere between 18 months and 2 years. Then he would divide the cost by the number of months and set up a savings plan. He reminded himself of the rule of threes for outdoor survival: The average person can live for three hours without shelter, for three days without water and for three weeks without food. So his priorities for spending were: shelter, water and food. He was pretty minimalist with his needs for shelter. Sometimes he would find a small room in someone else’s house, living with family and friends. Water and food came next. Then the next thing on his list was the savings for the trip. Everything else was discretionary. He rarely owned a car. He didn’t care for fancy clothes. In fact most of the time he lived out of a backpack, wearing the kind of clothes you might use for an expedition: sturdy, well made items that are easy to wash by hand and that can be worn without showing wrinkles.

I think of that no longer young man often when I consider my own life. Doing what matters most is a process of getting your priorities in order. For him travel was more important than luxury. it was more important than building a resume. It was more important than many things. And he succeeded in traveling a lot.

When people become ill, they often re-order their priorities. Acquiring possessions is rarely a priority for someone who is facing death. When you lose the ability to drive, getting a new car doesn’t seem important. Some of the people with whom I visit have significant financial resources. They realize that they will not run out of money before they die. Others have financial concerns as they face their illness. For all, the importance of money and finances changes and shifts as the end of their lives draws close. Dying is a process of releasing control and in some cases of having control taken away. Control of finances is one of the areas that one loses in dying. Someone else will are making those decisions.

Time takes on a different meaning as well. Most people have a sensation of not having much time when they receive the diagnosis of a life-ending disease. Their life will be shorter than expected. There isn’t enough time to do all the things they once had imagined. On the other hand, they find themselves spending a lot of time in hospital and clinic waiting rooms. There are days when they have little to occupy their time. They at once feel that they are out of time and that they have too much time on their hands. It is a strange sensation.

The bottom line is that we will all one day die from this life. Our time is limited. We have to make decisions about what is most important. I don’t happen to need a bucket list. But I am indeed fortunate to have friends who are facing their deaths ahead of me who are teaching me how to come to terms with who we are and what is more important in life.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!