What a Little Girl Can Teach You about a Better Bucket List

Two months of quarantine. And counting.

On a Thursday afternoon, I’m looking for new ways to feel alive, so I suggest to the kids we get on our bikes, ride to see friends, and reconnect with them as well as we can from the end of their driveway. It works. They are a sight for sore eyes, and we mostly succeed at staving off the pandemic blues for another day.

We’re on our way home when she says it.

The bike path on which we’re pedaling follows the river that runs through our town. Ten-year-old Caitlin and I are passing a long, wooded island that sits in the middle of the river, not far from the river bank, when she asks over her shoulder, “Daddy, do you think there are coyotes on the island?” I tell her probably not. She’s quiet for a moment or two. Then, over her shoulder, with a smile in her voice that I can only assume is on her face, she says, “I want to go out there some day to find out. It’s on my bucket list.”

It’s on my bucket list.

Before this pandemic, I was hard at work on my bucket list. Our family had just returned from a speaking event in Aspen, where we’d flown down mountainsides on snow coasters and snow-shoed through a tranquil forest preserve on a mountain peak. In a few months, we were planning to travel to Europe for the first time. I was adding extraordinary experiences to my bucket list as quickly as I could check them off. The pandemic has changed all of that. In fact, the pandemic has made the whole concept of a bucket list laughable, at least for a while.

Or at least the kind of bucket lists we adults tend to make.

We associate bucket lists with extraordinary experiences. Just prior to the quarantine, a motivational speaker came to our town, encouraging us to make a bucket list. His story was inspirational. He’d lived a hard life and had turned it around by doing exceptional things, like meeting the President and landing his own show on MTV. The message was: don’t underestimate yourself or your life. It’s a good message. One we need to hear from time to time. However, from time to time, it can also leave you feeling like the best things in life are way out of reach.

For Caitlin, though, having a bucket list means being curious about what’s right in front of her.

That’s the way of children. They’re not busy banking their lives on things they can’t see and can barely imagine. They’re too busy paying attention to the life they can see, the life for which they can reach, if they so choose. In response to the motivational speaker, I’d put one experience at the top of my bucket list: a ten-day silent retreat. It sounds a little more attainable than most things, but the truth is, with three kids whose lives I don’t want to miss, a business to run, a new book to publish, and a million other little responsibilities, ten days of nothingness feels like a trip to the moon.

What would it look like if, instead, I made Caitlin’s kind of bucket list?

I think every morning I’d wake up with a bucket list just for that day. At the top of it would be a ten-minute silent retreat. Ten minutes of nothingness. Ten minutes to just be. Not to think. Not to do. To simply exist and know that existence without all the inner chatter and outer clamor is at least tolerable and at most magical.

My bucket list would be driven by curiosity about the things right in front of me.

I’d wonder more about the conflicted look in my middle-schooler’s eyes—that look which says he wants to tell me things but doesn’t know how. I’d be curious about the podcast my teenage son is listening to, rather than writing it off as nonsense. I’d ask Caitlin about what else is on her bucket list. Travel would be near the top of my list, but it would consist mostly of traveling further than ever before into the life and love of my wife.

I’d add to the list all the little things that make up the joy of an ordinary life, like paying attention to the warmth of the water in the shower, the sound of wind through treetops, the dappled dance of summer sunlight across the kitchen floor, grace in its various disguises.

I’d put gratitude on my daily bucket list, because gratitude is something that is often just out of my reach, but something I can reach for if I so choose. I’d choose to be grateful for a quarantine that left me pedaling with my little girl on a bike path along a river, where she asked me a question, I gave her an answer, and then with the wisdom of a child, she gave me back my life, in all of its ordinary grace.

Tonight,

I washed the dishes,

with an otherwise quiet mind,

and then I checked it off my bucket list,

before adding it once again to my list for tomorrow.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.