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The surprising benefits of a bucket list

Last Modified: March 24, 2023

Healthy Mind

Bucket list

This post was written by Patrick Riecke, director, Dignity and Spiritual Care, Parkview Health.

In October 2019, Parkview Health executives invited inspirational speaker Ben Nemtin to deliver a keynote speech. His presentation changed my life.

His central question was: What do you want to do before you die?

“At the end of their lives, more people regret the things they didn’t do, than the things they did do,” Ben explained.

Over the last ten years, I have led the Parkview Chaplaincy team as they have responded to more than 14,000 patient deaths. We had a front-row seat when many of our citizens arrived at the end of their earthly journey. So, I know that Ben is on to something. But for me, there was one big problem. This question feels, I don’t know … selfish.

As a Christian pastor, I have lived my life with a certain (incomplete) framework. My mental script has gone like this:

“What is the right thing to do?”

“How can I be more selfless?”

“What does the world need and how can I deliver it?”

Perfectly fine questions, and I believed I was pleasing God with this framework for my life. But it has had some negative outcomes.

Living my life through the lens of “should” instead of “want” has led to:

  1. Frustration (with myself and others)
  2. Trying to control (myself and others)
  3. Shame (when I did something wrong)
  4. Resentment (when things didn’t turn out the “right” way)

Last year, Ben came out with his new “Bucket List Journal.” I was still living with frustration and shame. Even so, I preordered a copy of the journal. I took it as a sign when, the next week, Ben returned to Fort Wayne, and spoke at a fundraiser for Erin’s House for Grieving Children. My wife and I arrived early, visited with Ben, and enjoyed his talk.

I realized it was time to start making my own bucket list. Could it help me adjust my framework so I felt less shame and resentment?

Tentatively, I started compiling my list.

Here are a few items I have included:

48. Visit the Holy Land
65. Attend an Indiana University men’s basketball game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington
5. Have lunch with Ben Nemtin
36. Be a keynote speaker for an event outside of the United States

Here are a few that I have already crossed off:

60. Boil a tea kettle until it whistles (yes, I lived to be 44 years old and had only seen this on TV)
18. Own a three-year supply of firewood
58. Set up a nice, quiet home office
11. Work with a financial advisor

The list is great. And it’s starting to make an impact (even though I am still a bucket list novice). In fact, the list might be decreasing my shame and resentment.

Item No. 18 (above) is a perfect example: Own a three-year supply of firewood.

Last summer, I added this item to my bucket list. Then, I noticed that my neighbor had a huge supply of firewood. It ran the length of one side of his house, and they didn’t seem to use it. But I don’t know this neighbor very well, even though we have been neighbors for years. And I feel guilty about that.

Every day last summer, I planned to ask him if I could buy some of his wood. It would be a lot easier than transporting that much wood from someplace else. I saw him from time to time. I wanted to ask, but I kept chickening out.

This is what was going through my mind:

The right thing would have been to be a better neighbor. But I haven’t done that. I feel ashamed. Why would he care if I want some easy-to-transport firewood? In fact, he probably hates me because I haven’t been the neighbor I should have been.

See what I mean? Living with the framework of solely trying to do the right thing led to shame, distance and an extreme lack of firewood. The lie I believed was that my desires don’t matter.

Once we believe that lie, it’s a small leap to the next lie–that I don’t matter. Which, by the way, is a profound violation of the message of the New Testament. I have two degrees in the New Testament, so you would think I would have learned this lesson already.

One day, I was mowing the lawn. I had my shirt off, which is kind of gross and probably the wrong thing to do for a man my age. Just then, my neighbor appeared out of his garage. I swallowed hard and ignored my inner critic telling me I should keep my mouth shut since I am a bad neighbor. I let go of the mower handle, killing the engine.

“Hey, Bob (not his real name),” I stammered. “Uh, I was gonna buy some firewood, so I thought I would. Well, I wonder. Would you mind selling me some of yours, if you don’t mind?”

I swallowed hard again. I felt like I was speaking a foreign language. The language of “want” instead of the language of “should.”

He didn’t miss a beat, probably because he hadn’t rehearsed this interaction in his head a hundred times as I had.

“Oh, take as much as you want. We don’t use it.”

“OK,” I gained a little confidence. “Would $50 be enough if I took about half of it?”

“You don’t need to pay me anything, you’re welcome to it,” he said.

“Thanks,” was all I said.

But what I meant was, “This crosses off No. 18 on my bucket list of things I want to do before I die. It was super hard for me to ask you this, but now I feel so affirmed that living this way is really possible. I feel free and unashamed; like I am worth it! I am valuable enough to have a three-year supply of firewood. Thank you, Bob. Thank you!” Upon reflection, it’s probably good that I didn’t say all of that. He would have thought I was nuts.

Reframing my life as an adventure where I get to do things I want to do (before I die) is having the following effects:

  • Increased energy – Pursuing something I want is more energizing than avoiding a wrong action.
  • Inspiring others – I signed up for an online course called “Travel-Hacking” to become a more knowledgeable traveler (bucket list item No. 57). Immediately, I texted our four kids. They replied, and I quote, “Yessirrr” and “Let’s go, Dad.” They included a goat emoji, meaning I was the “greatest of all time.” That might be an overstatement.
  • Increased gratitude – I look at my pile of firewood often. I sit in my new quiet home office, and I feel deeply thankful. These are things I wanted. Now I have them. And I thank God.
  • Decreased shame – Nothing busts shame and resentment like crossing something off my list!
  • Desire affirming – I find joy in crossing things off my bucket list.

Recently, I again mustered the courage to ask for help crossing an item off my list. I’ll keep the specifics to myself, but I mention it because another person was involved in making it possible, and I think creating a bucket list has a ripple effect.

After making my request, the young man working behind the counter clickety-clacked the keyboard. His name tag told me that he was from India and his name was Joe. In a few swift movements, he granted my request with ease. My eyes brimmed with tears of joy.

“Joe,” I said in a solemn voice. “Do you know what a bucket list is?” He gave me a confused look at first. “A list of things you want to do before you die.” I offered. His face registered recognition.

With tears, I said, “You just helped me cross an item off my bucket list.” I stared into this stranger’s eyes for an uncomfortably long time. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome, sir, very welcome. Thank you.” Joe’s eyes got a little glassy as well, knowing he made a difference in someone else’s life.

How about you? What do you want to do before you die?

Do you have a bucket list?

Are you worth it?

Could you start one today? Record it on paper or a note on your phone.

What’s the next step for you to pursue your desires?


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