Friday, November 12, 2010

The Unbucket List

The Unbucket List
I attended a death conference recently at Akron Children’s Hospital. I decided to go because after an absence of many months death had come back to the church that I serve. After performing too many funerals in too few weeks, I wanted an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing before I had to sit down and compose yet another eulogy. It wasn’t called a death conference, of course, but instead was called “Befriending the Dying on Their Sacred Journey.” I was there with palliative care nurses, doctors, social workers, and a few clergy. You might think that the event would have been depressing or morbid, but instead it was uplifting and life-affirming. You can’t imagine how upbeat that hospice care workers can be.
The main presenter was a nun, Sister Mary Assumpta, and you know how much fun nuns can be. She wore the traditional habit of her order, and I kept thinking that a strong wind would lift her up into the air like the Flying Nun (I know it’s a reference showing my age, but deal with it). It sounds like a cliché to say that her remarks were deep and profound, but they were for me. She understands dying and living in a way that I hope to do so someday. I have thought of her comments and other parts of that conference many times in the past days. And I am sure that I will think of them tomorrow when I attend yet one more funeral – for the death of our longtime neighbor Joe Kelley.
One of the things that Sister Mary counseled all of us to do – those of us who know we will die someday and those of us still in denial – was to put together a Bucket List of things we want to do before we die to help us plan for and prioritize the days that we do have. One of the things on my list was to see a tearjerker movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman so that’s one thing that I can cross off.
Now I am not against making a Bucket List, but my thoughts on it are similar to those of Jonathon Beverly, Editor-in-Chief of Running Times magazine. Beverly wrote in a recent issue: “Many life-best experiences lack the obvious pizzazz to make a bucket list. If we focus too much on experiences ‘before we die’ we may miss the true joys of the days of that life.” Bluto Blutarsky once said something like this: “This can be the best day of your life.” Isn’t it true that sometimes the greatest experiences we have are not those we planned for or prepared for but were those we were open to when they came along? They would not have appeared on our list alongside things like climb Mt. Everest, run the Boston Marathon, attend a victory parade for the Super Bowl champion Cleveland Browns, hear Jim Bane preach, and so on, but we wouldn’t have missed them for the world.
If you had asked me to compose a Bucket List at the age of 18 or 21 or even 25, becoming a father would not have appeared on that list. I wasn’t against it, but I would not have thought that it would have been something that I had to do before my life was complete. I doubt that becoming a father would appear on the Bucket List of very many men, yet I cannot imagine living my life without the incredible experiences (and even the mundane days) of fatherhood. I’ll take being a husband and a father over any other thing that I could ever list on things I had to do before I died.
I have lost a lot of weight in the past year, and a number of people in our church have expressed concern about my health. One man asked me last week for the name of my doctor so that he would make sure never to be his patient since my weight loss obviously indicates substandard medical care. And the truth is, of course, that every day I get that much closer to the ultimate demise and failure of my body. But then so does everyone else. Even you.
If you have made a Bucket List and are diligently pursuing everything on it, then I salute you. But I would suggest composing an additional list which I am calling the Unbucket List. The Unbucket List would be those things that you want to make sure that you never do (or never do again) because they take up too much of the remaining hours that you have. For example, your Unbucket List might have things on it like this: Thinking about Sara Palin, Watching political commercials, Waiting in line for more than 15 minutes, Being angry about waiting in line for more than 15 minutes, Holding a grudge, Being held captive by guilt, Worrying about what anyone else thinks of you, Trying to earn God’s love which is already guaranteed, and so on. If we spend too much of our time on those kinds of things, we’ll never have a moment for the stuff that really counts, even those surprisingly deep events that occur when we least expect it.
What is on your Unbucket List?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are You Making Your Mark or Making a Stain?

Are you making your mark or making a stain? I thought of this question as I walked our dogs, Captain and Icarus, through the woods behind our house today. Captain and Icarus aren’t big dogs – they are pugs after all – but when they get into those outdoor settings they are determined to let the whole world know that they have been there. They try to mark as many trees and bushes and plants as they can. I am astonished at the number of locations where those pugs can leave their scent. Sometimes they both choose to mark the same spot, but other times they decide on separate locations. It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other as long as what they do happens outside our house. When it happens inside, it is a mess that needs to be cleaned up. It is no longer making a mark but making a stain. And just so Captain is not offended, I need to clarify that Icarus is the one who occasionally makes the inside mistake.
Our wise neighbor Susan was walking by our house with her dog Fletcher awhile ago, and we got into a conversation comparing people with dogs. She was the one who put the idea into my head that some people make their mark in life while other people just end up making a stain. It might sound like a crass analogy, but isn’t it true that some folks (often men) just seem to spend their time trying to leave their scent on everything? In fact, now and again two men are like Captain and Icarus each trying to make their mark on the same spot. There is even a saying for that which I won’t share here.
How do you know if you are making your mark or just making a stain? I think that if you are making your mark you are not just leaving your smell on something, but that you are putting down a marker – much like the Inukshuk stone statues that the Inuits used to leave. This signpost you leave is not a statue to your accomplishment but is a pointer for others that helps provide guidance for them as they walk the way behind you. Your example gives them hope and encouragement in their own life’s journey. When you make a mark, it is a gift to the whole community. Making a stain, on the other hand, is a selfish act that provides nothing of value to anyone else. It is your way to say, “I was here,” but it does not offer hope or encouragement that benefits others. And when you make a stain, people either have to clean it up or try to avoid stepping in it because no one wants your smell on them.
Most of us have goals, dreams, and hopes for our lives. Most of us hope to be remembered after we are gone. But will we be remembered for making a mark or making a stain? You can learn a lot from walking two pugs on a November afternoon. There is wisdom everywhere, isn’t there?