Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Bucket Lists"

My husband, Herb, and I were discussing “bucket lists” tonight over dinner. There is a 2007 film starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson by the name of “The Bucket List” in which two terminally ill cancer patients jointly run away from their cancer ward to do all the things they’ve always wanted to do before “they kick the bucket.”

At ages 70 and 60 respectively, Herb and I have entered the season in our lives when friends and acquaintances die, and we have occasion to reflect on what we know of their lives and also of their deaths. In addition to keeping a supply of birthday and thank you cards on hand, I find myself replenishing a supply of sympathy cards regularly.

As so often happens when a married couple like us, who have known each other for a very long time, in our case, thirty years, begin to talk about others, invariably the conversation turns to talking about ourselves. I pointed out to Herb that I cannot think of anything that I have always wanted to do that I haven’t already done or would feel regret over if I came to the end of my days and learned that I hadn’t done it. Herb did not hesitate to say that he feels the same way.

A very wise friend and priest said to me recently that her advice to terminally ill people is “to have no regrets.” I think that advice applies in a number of areas, not just to achieving goals such as taking the dream vacation, trying a sport or hobby, buying the long desired extravagant gift for one’s self, or eating the perfect meal in the perfect location.

Having no regrets is also about reconciliation of relationships. The most obvious admonition is to make amends, reconnecting with loved ones and repairing broken friendships, asking for forgiveness and asking for another chance. Making amends is a biggie, and we tend to do biggies pretty well when we set our focus and pay attention.

Having no regrets is good advice, as far as it goes. I think it’s important to go further and make a commitment to finding contentment. Finding contentment is an antidote to having no regrets. Recommendations for finding contentment fall into two significant categories: being present and choosing well. Compared to making amends, these are smaller, less momentous, items, which are actually much harder to do, because the things that tip the balance for them are also much smaller – smaller distractions, smaller avoidances, smaller excuses – when taken individually. The problem is that we don’t take them individually, but we aggregate them serially, one small distraction following one small avoidance followed by one small excuse, repeatedly.

If you watch infants and toddlers as they learn new activities, you’ll notice the intense concentration, persistence and repetition in which they engage until they master the task, and then their countenances break out in smiles, giggles and pure joy. There is a simplicity to that joy. It is centered in the moment or series of moments, each task focused upon and achieved, with all the other distractions of the world set aside in the moment.

St. Anselm talks about God as “supremely simple,” not a composite thing that is made up of or dependent upon parts. God is both supremely simple and the supreme unity. As humankind becomes reconciled with God, we are called into that supremely simple nature, which seems to me to be expressed by what we describe as “being present.” In being present we do exhibit in a very real sense a unity of and with the moment in that we inhabit the moment fully.

As adults, those of us who have experienced the sense of unity in a moment can point to examples such as a mother gazing into the eyes of her infant, a couple sharing mutual sexual orgasm, and athletes as they enter the water in a perfect high dive. In those moments, nothing else exists for us except everything that is contained in unity in the moment.

Choosing well begins with choosing whom we love, including the choice to love God. Broken relationships is as much about choosing well those with whom we have intimate relationships as it is about making good choices around boundaries, ethics and morals. In the simplest terms, I would suggest that it’s like choosing “10’s” every chance one gets versus settling for less than “10’s.” For example, why waste calories on eating a crummy tasting piece of chocolate when one can choose to eat a divine piece of artisan chocolate?

And if a “10” is not available, with only “not-10’s” being offered, wouldn’t another choice be “not 10 and not not-10”? Our Western style of thinking tends to couch everything we think about in binary terms: either-or, black or white, yes or no. What if we were to expand our thinking beyond binary terms, to 1) black, 2) white or 3) not black/not white? What if the choices before an end stage renal failure patient were 1) transplant, 2) dialysis or 3) not transplant/not dialysis? Is is possible that having that third choice could represent a better way of choosing?

So, I’m not going to be writing a “bucket list.” What about you?

(I want to acknowledge here that I write in the context of these United States where we live in a culture of privilege in every sense of the word. I know that choice exists in a very different paradigm in other parts of the world.)

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