Forget the bucket list
When you look back on your life so far, what experiences do you value the most?
Can you list the events that have taught you the most important lessons, deepened your friendships or given your life a sense of purpose?
I don’t know about you, but the incidents that come to my mind aren’t exactly pretty.
The reality is, we are who we are today because of the hard stuff we’ve gone through, the modest acts of bravery, and a lot of other small moments that seemed insignificant at the time.
But who wants to chase after the ordinary?
I know I don’t.
When we fantasize about the kind of future we want, we get stuck on bucket lists, grand adventures and sky-high successes. We spend a lot of time hunting down new experiences and buying more stuff.
If you could just get that amazing car, afford that dream vacation, land that ideal job, master that skill, find that perfect _____, you fill in the blank.
It’s never enough. I have travelled to a few different countries. I’ve had some great jobs. I don’t have the amazing car, but I’ve certainly had some glamorous, Instagram-worthy experiences.
Yes, they were wonderful in the moment. But the more expectation I placed on these things to satisfy me, the more quickly their charm faded.
I didn’t “find myself” amid Scottish ruins. I didn’t have an earth-shattering epiphany on a mountaintop. Instead, let me tell you about some of my most valuable experiences—the ones that I would not exchange for anything.
Spoiler alert: they are not only mundane, they’re often downright ugly.
One of these early events was a cringe-worthy middle school play. As a debilitatingly shy, frightened little girl, my faltering delivery of three tiny lines felt like a sheer miracle. I remember stepping off the stage and bursting into tears of relief—my shirt covered in stage makeup. But then, as I was folded into a messy, triumphant family group hug, it began to sink in that I didn’t have to be stuck inside my own head anymore. Now I knew I could be brave.
There are smaller things, too. Like my grandfather who read my poetry and told me to write and keep on writing. Like sitting in a room full of strangers as a speaker's words penetrated my brain. Use what tools you have in your hands; I clutched a pen in my fingers with no clue how to begin.
There have been tearful coffee shop conversations, clinging to friends and choosing not to let go. There have been dark car rides that suddenly became raw and real amid betrayed trust and incredible forgiveness; there have been moments, lying in bed wide awake, where Jesus has whispered truth fit to shatter my lies. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.
It’s been moments like crying in a British train station, reading pages and pages of tender hand-written notes—the fruit of many short but astonishingly deep friendships. It’s been sitting beside a busy street corner, reading Scripture aloud to combat fear and stay grounded in eternal reality; it’s been moments huddled in the still darkness as those closest to me tell me they love me, even when they know exactly how screwed up I am.
I have been shaped by these events—shaped by choosing to stop, to dig in deep and fight for truth and love, rather than giving up.
It's been Jesus who has used these moments of pain and joy, these hard lessons and unexpected victories, to teach me that he is enough. He is enough to free and heal me. I can be more than okay because he died to pay for my every sin.
What is your story?
I’m guessing that in a way, it’s probably similar. The incidents that define us are rarely the flashy experiences we pursue. Checking items off a bucket list is not the secret to living a beautiful life. Often, the more we do and the more we get, the more we want.
It doesn’t leave us content.
I chose a hot air balloon as my main image because riding in one is a long-cherished dream of mine. But the thing is, even if I do get to do this sometime, it still won't come close to the character-defining experiences I've listed above.
The events that have the greatest value in my life aren't the superficial ones I try to create for myself; they are the ones God hands to me and teaches me how to use.
Far greater joy is found by slowing down, sinking into each moment and paying attention to our own thoughts and emotions. We need to declutter our busy schedules and busy minds just enough to stay still. Just enough to learn how to appreciate what we already have.
When we embrace what life has to offer in each day and each encounter—even the boring stuff becomes a new adventure.
I’m talking about more than stopping to smell the roses here (although by all means do that too). I’m talking about taking life in all its forms.
Yes, it’s messy, and it hurts, but there is so much to be gained by being thankful for what we have and accepting the lessons each day has to teach us.
Be open and honest about your struggles along the way; put time and effort into your relationships; utter aloud your deepest convictions and greatest fears. Listen to the stories of others and learn from them.
No, these may not be the bucket list experiences we so often seek, but we miss so much when we’re too busy wishing we were somewhere else, doing something else.
If we stop underestimating the gifts lying hidden amidst our ordinary days, we can begin to unpack the secret of who we are—and what we’re here on earth to do.