The Bucket List


I used to be proud to have a bucket list, and now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been thinking about what a bucket list means ever since I read that a couple of weeks ago President Obama took a small detour on his way back to the United States, after a summit meeting in Wales, in order to see Stonehenge.

After walking around a bit, listening to the curator, and having his picture taken with some surprised tourists, he said to reporters, “Knocked it off the bucket list!”

At first I was surprised to know that President Obama was still working on a bucket list. After “graduating from Harvard Law School,” “becoming a United States Senator,” and “becoming the first African-American President of the United States,” you would think that there wouldn’t be many items left on his list.

But no, apparently there are a few other things he’d still like to do.

I still have a few things I’d like to do too. Like the President I have a few travel destinations in mind. And I still haven’t climbed Mount Everest or qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Some items seem less and less likely as the years go by. I was never a terribly fast runner, for example, and each of my marathons has been slower than the previous one. So, qualifying for the Boston Marathon seems more like a pipe dream than a real, honest-to-goodness bucket list item. And frankly, I have no business being on Mount Everest or even a mountain half that size.

But most of the items that remain on my list seem, well, kind of small. Not small in degree of difficulty, but small in terms of significance.

Here’s the thing: Bucket list items have always seemed a tiny bit selfish. I’ve never heard anyone say, for example, that eradicating polio was on her bucket list. Or finding a cure for cancer. Or any of a number of things that might actually make life better.

Most bucket list items are about personal experience or personal achievement.

I finally got to see a rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was the last shuttle launch. And to be honest, it was a quite a thrill, something I had wanted to do since I was a little boy, watching Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo rockets blast off. I stood that day in a VIP tent, not because I was a VIP, but because I knew someone who was. I listened to the countdown, and then I saw and felt something that I had only previously seen on a television screen. The ground shook, and a wave of heat from the blast washed over me. And then it was over. The rocket was out of sight. It was time to climb into my car and go home.

Bucket list items tend to be like that. But not all of them.

My older sister once traveled more than a thousand miles to come to my church and hear me preach, something she had never done before. Afterwards, she said, “It was on my bucket list.” And much too flippantly, I said, “You need a new bucket list.” I regretted saying it almost soon as the words were out of my mouth.

No bucket list item has to measure up to my standard of worthiness.

Who knows what seeing Stonehenge meant to a man who has already accomplished more with his life than most of us dream about. Maybe he promised his mother that one day he would do it because she didn’t live long enough to do it herself. I will most likely never know. And it doesn’t matter that I do.

His reasons were personal. As are the reasons for the items on my list.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


9 Responses to The Bucket List

  1. Linda Strodtman September 13, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    And Bucket Lists–may be hopes that inspire in one’s day to day living. And sometimes they become reality and other times they provide beautiful dreams to share with others.

  2. Charles Scouten September 13, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks for sharing such a personal thing. Too often in our effort to reespond the “way one ought to” to the call of duty, honor, country or agape we simply forget our personal need to be a full person. The balance you and Susan have struck in this regard is remarkable – and a great example for those of us who observe (sometimes with a bit of envy I must admit).

    • Doug September 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

      Charles, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Your life always seemed full and rich to me.

  3. Dennis Ulmer September 13, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    I’ve been given the opportunity to have what I think are special experiences. I try not to talk about them much, but they inspire me to write, and give public speeches that I hope inspire others. You have inspired many people with your sermons, and I would rank hearing any one of them as being “bucket worthy”. When you use something that you’ve experienced or heard, to inspire others, I think that makes the experience a special experience., I don’t have a formal “bucket list”, but if I did, it would include meeting and hearing some inspirational people as well as seeing some different places in the world. You Doug, are one of the people I will always remember as inspiring me.

    • Doug September 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      Thanks, Dennis. Miss you too.

  4. David Taylor September 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    Great blog Doug. Have you heard about about Stephen Sutton’s bucket list? He was an extraordinary young man dying of cancer who used his bucket list to raise a tremendous amount of money before he died.

    • Doug September 15, 2014 at 1:07 am #

      I had not read that story, David. Thanks for passing it along. I would agree that he seems like an extraordinary young man.

  5. Andrea Coffey Stewart September 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    You hit the nail on the head Doug. Items on a bucket list are indeed personal and I am humbled and deeply touched whenever my Dad includes me on one of his adventures. His birthday is tomorrow and we are doing one of his items as a family on Friday. Please keep us in your prayers.

    • Doug September 17, 2014 at 11:39 pm #

      So, now I’m curious about the sorts of things he chooses!

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