The Dark Side of Bucket Lists

adventure Apr 05, 2017

When she was in third grade, my beautiful, waif-like daughter Kaya earned herself the nickname “Pig.” For years, her friends called her that – affectionately, I might add – because it’s her favorite animal, and because she wanted nothing more than this: to swim with the pigs in Exuma. (Yes, it’s a real thing.)

So last weekend, we boarded a plane – me, Kaya, her friend and her friend’s mom – and headed to the Bahamas.

We took a boat ride to the island where the pigs lived. When we got off, one thing was clear: the pigs were not interested in swimming. They had swum all morning, and were tired, and just not in the mood to help Kaya live her dream.

At first, I just stood there, dumbfounded. This was it?…This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen at all.

Kaya was disappointed, but she didn’t dwell on it. We did other islandy things – hung out on the beach, went swimming without pigs, you know, the usual.

When we got home, I told Stephen how anticlimactic it was. “The trip was kind of a bust,” I told him quietly. He asked Kaya if she had fun.

“Yeah!” she said, her face lighting up. “It was lots of fun!”

“What was your favorite part?”

“The boat ride, and the beach, and…” She went on to name a dozen other things.

When I saw her face, I realized I’d been wrong. The trip hadn’t been a bust. I’d just been looking at the wrong things.

Sometimes, you go for something, especially a bucket list item, and it’s just not what you expected.

There’s an old Harry Chapin song, “Greyhound,” that I used to love. In it, there’s the line, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”

I sang that line over and over when my sister Karin and I biked the Pacific Highway Coast, from San Francisco to San Diego. There were a lot of big hills, so it was like a mantra for me. I’ve got to enjoy this part, too, not just wait for the end. And there were so many things to enjoy—my sister, the sun, the wind, the view. They were the best parts of the trip.

In Exuma, there were dozens of moments of fun and light and joy. We got to hold piglets. I held a giant starfish. Kaya had a great time with her friend, and I had a great time with her mom. I went for a walk by myself and found these spectacular little coves. I had some cool ideas for my business.

On the way back, we rode a prop plane—something I swore I’d never do again. But there we were, flying through the air in a shaky metal box, and the sunset was so stunning I forgot to be nervous.

Most people, myself included, miss those small moments – either because we’re too focused on the end goal, or because we’re afraid to accept joy.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about “foreboding joy” – that tendency to feel afraid when things are good, thinking something bad will surely happen next. We close ourselves off to the joy, believing if we don’t get too happy, we can’t get too sad.

But that’s the wrong approach. When you’re blessed with a moment of joy, she says, the best thing to do is feel it, to “lean into” it, accept it.

Don’t squander joy, she writes. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen – and they do happen – we are stronger.

Strength and resilience come from leaning into joy when it’s near, so it becomes a part of who you are.

I see this working whenever my son Ty has a nightmare. When that happens, we play this game: “What are some things that make you happy?” And he’ll start naming things, one by one, until he’s ready to go back to sleep.

It’s so important to enjoy those things, to collect them like seashells, keep them somewhere safe. When you need them, you can get them out and look at them, turn them over, experience that joy again.

Of course, crossing off a bucket list item – that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t mean to imply we should think small, and forego all the pig-swimming and globetrotting and thrill-seeking that life has in store for us. But on the way to those things, don’t lose sight of the little moments. In the prop planes and the sunsets, the snorting piglets and the starfish. That’s where joy is, waiting for us to find it.

And then when we reach our destination, we’ll know how to enjoy it to the fullest. We were training for it all along.

I’m no musician, but I’m going to rewrite Harry Chapin’s lyric. I think it should be “It has to be the going, not just the getting there, that’s good.”

What are some little moments you’re experiencing, right now? What’s around you in this very moment that’s giving you joy, helping you become more resilient and strong?

It can be anything – a glass of water, the view out your window, the face of a loved one. Acknowledge those things now; bring them in to your collection of joy.

Write them in the comments below – I want to spread the joy as much as possible.

Go out and shine.

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