In the very first column I wrote for this blog, more than three years ago, I described the things I would do “if I were a rich man,” as Tevye sang in Fiddler on the Roof.
While a couple of items were rather indulgent (new house, cars for everyone, lots of overseas travel), I realized that many could be accomplished without a fortune. The list empowered me to do the things I love, such as spend more time with my family, develop my skills as a writer, and communicate more often with family members who live hundreds of miles away.
It was the same feeling of empowerment felt by the main characters in the film The Bucket List, though they had, if you’ll pardon the pun, a real deadline to meet.
Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) find themselves roommates in the cancer wing of one of Cole’s hospitals. Both men receive news that they only have six months to live.
Carter expected to feel liberated once he heard how much time he had left on this earth. It turns out he doesn’t feel liberated at all. He’s depressed by the news, burdened by his responsibilities to his family and mired in the regret of not following his dreams to be a history teacher.
Edward, however, seizes the opportunity to go out with a bang. He convinces Carter to leave his family behind for awhile as they live out the wishes on their bucket list – the list of things they desperately want to do before they “kick the bucket.” After lots of excitement, trips to faraway lands and luxurious accommodations, Carter reaffirms the love he has for his wife and family, and his new best friend.
If someone could tell you the exact time and date of your death, would you want to know? I don’t think I would—the big, red circled date on the calendar would be too much of a hindrance on what happens today.
I prefer the outlook put forth by John S. Dunne, CSC, my freshman theology professor at Notre Dame. As he writes in his book A Search for God in Time and Memory, Father Dunne believes that man fears what he can’t control. Man will pray for strength to change the things that should be changed, but he lets God deal with everything else.
(Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” comes to mind: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.)
In this ideology, God is no more than a high powered executive who handles problems passed up the ladder.
However, if man takes the time to examine his/her own life, and compare it to the lives of great writers and philosophers from the past, man will find similarities and truths that resonate through everyone’s life. These truths illuminate another dimension of man, one that reaches beyond the self and one’s individual life story. In this dimension, beneath these life experiences, lies the possibility of companionship with a compassionate God.
This compassionate God is much more than a super CEO; he is Abba, my Father, who loves me today for who I am. He knows what’s best for me, including how long I should stay on this earth.
He has cleansed me of my sins and wiped away the fear of death. I trust that he has my best interests in mind and will keep me on this earth as long as he needs me to be here. Now unburdened of deadlines, I’m free to live fully in His love and to share that love with others.
As for my own bucket list, I have written a few items. Some are things I can probably do: run a half marathon, watch a Cubs’ spring training game in Arizona, take future grandchildren to Disney World. Some are things I dream about: take Linda to Hawaii and Rome, write a song that’s sung on the radio, and sing at Mass with the Holy Father.
Looking back over my first 50 years, I’ve already been very lucky, like Forrest Gump, to enjoy some unique experiences. I’ve gazed upon the Sistine Chapel, enjoyed beer in Munich, eaten fish and chips in London and bent backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone. At the stroke of midnight one New Year’s Eve (before I was married) I kissed a former Miss America. President Nixon patiently waited for me to take his photograph. I sang the National Anthem at Wrigley Field, chatted about baby girls with Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, and was beckoned on stage by Tim McGraw to help him connect with a young fan.
But NONE of these events mean more to me than taking Linda’s hand in marriage, watching baby Kristin open her eyes at the sound of my voice, celebrating with Connor after his marching band’s victories, or “high fiving” Tommy after he struck out the last two batters to beat the undefeated Indians.
Like in the film, all our life experiences should be judged by two questions: “Did you find joy in your life?” and “Did your life create joy for others?”
How will you answer? Your answer will be the true measure of your riches.
First published in the August 8, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio