Living Your Bucket List

September 12, 2019

How I went from a grocery list to a bucket list and found greater meaning and hope.

I love the idea behind having a "bucket list": a place to name all the things you'd like to achieve in life. A place to check off those activities and achievements one-by-one. What a sense of satisfaction that must create!

Though I like the idea, I've never made a bucket list. That's because, in part, my life has never seemed to have room or, frankly, means to actually check-off the activities I'd include since most of the items would involve travel to places like Sweden, Portugal, the Caribbean, with a few other less costly activities thrown in just to give myself a chance to make a couple of check marks.

I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Every one of us gets to do, see, experience our own life and most of us have a pretty good time of it. Still, the topic of a bucket list comes up all the time in the world of people living with cancer and, probably, especially in the world of those living with advanced cancer. For someone like me, who understands but doesn't participate, the draw of ticking things off as you go down the list is a perennial question: Should I make a bucket list?

Today, I have an answer different than, "No, I don't have a bucket list. I have a grocery list." That's because I heard a great talk by Dr. Joseph Greer, of Massachusetts General Hospital, over the weekend that pinpointed exactly why I feel uncomfortable with bucket lists and gave me new questions to ask.

Truthfully, I've envied the people with bucket lists similar to what my own would be as they talk about checking off one thing after another. They were surely living more meaningful lives than me, even though I am the one facing a shortened life because of cancer. My life was more of a grocery list than a bucket list - a comparison Dr. Greer actually used in his talk. But today, I am keeping in mind that a "grocery list" can also be a bucket list if it includes the things that really matter to me. Here's how I'm changing how I think about bucket lists:

Social media may want us to think life is either meaningful or mundane, but that's not reality. Lots of us, me included, find meaning in what are pretty mundane parts of life. By looking at my choices as either/or, I have sometimes prevented myself from seeing the beauty in my daily life.

Think deeply about your life and what matters to you. For instance, I've dreamt of going to Spain and Portugal, but for at least the last 25 years my vacations have always meant visiting family around the US. Instead of thinking about what I've missed, this idea of looking at what matters to me has meant that I need to acknowledge that family visits hold greater meaning.

Identify three ways in which you connect with life and feel most alive.

You may have new goals that fit into your lifelong values and dreams, and you may have goals you'd like to finish or a longtime goal that still matters to you and deserves your time.

Ask yourself two questions: "What do I care about?" and "Are those things that I care about the same things that I invest time and energy in?" If the answer to the second question is "Yes", then that's a bucket list item. Even if it's mundane - spending time with my children, walking my dog - it's still a bucket list item. If what I'm investing time and energy in is in service to my values, then they are meaningful.

What a beautiful way of looking at life. This simple perspective change - turning away from the idea of an extravagant bucket list to the idea that a bucket list can be used to identify what matters to you based on a lifetime of love, achievements, and values - is what so many of us with cancer need to hear.


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