Last year my husband turned 40. All of a sudden, I realized that my own fortieth birthday was barrelling toward me at lightning speed.
Yes, I was just as melodramatic as that.
Never before had my age bothered me much (except for a few months of “what have I accomplished” angst before my thirtieth birthday). But realizing that I’d be turning 40 in just two years had me all sorts of worked up. I talked myself down by looking up stories of uber successful people who didn’t accomplish a thing before beginning their fifth decade. After muttering to myself, “Remember Vera Wang. Remember Harrison Ford. Remember Julia Child,” a few dozen times (and throwing in old Noah, Moses, Abraham and Sarah), I started to calm down.
And then promptly turned toward bucket lists, because OF COURSE I DID. I googled “things to do before 40” and “birthday bucket lists,” but I didn’t find much that was helpful. The people who’d published their list of goals before turning 40 mostly had either different priorities or a different budget than I do, so other than a bit of travel envy I didn’t gain much from that search. If I wanted to create a list of goals, with my fortieth birthday as the deadline, I was on my own.
First up on my list were the things that top most of my lists: books and movies. I wanted to finally get around to reading the classic books and watching the classic movies I’d missed out on so far. Bible reading plans, weight loss goals, and career ambitions quickly followed. I thought about what I’d learned in almost 40 years; I thought about what I still didn’t know. I pondered who I want to be and how I want others to know me; I reflected on the kind of legacy I’d like to leave behind. Eventually, I ended up with a short but powerful list of things I’d like to do before I turn 40.
If “make bucket list” was on my list, I could have crossed it off.
Flash forward to today, one year later, and I haven’t made much progress on the things I deemed crucial for a 40-year-old woman to have done. I’ve watched one movie that everyone else in the world had already seen, and I bought a couple classic books for my Kindle. I’ve taken baby steps toward a few of the other items on that list, but it’s safe to say I’ve got a long way to go before next December.
I have, however, managed to cross things off a bucket list I never wanted to create, a set of goals I never wanted to set.
This fall I was in a car accident. It was more than a fender bender, but nothing too terrible. My girls and I were rear-ended on the highway when the cars behind us didn’t slow down fast enough in a construction zone. Aside from a stiff neck (and the trauma of being doused with icy cold lemonade), we were not injured and all parties had insurance. Getting my car repaired was a hassle, but we could only be thankful nothing worse came of the altercation.
I’d never been in a car accident before.
As I thought about how unusual it is to go more than 38 years without being in a car accident, I thought about other unexpected — and unwanted — things I’ve experienced.
Being laid off from my job
Getting a cavity for the first time (in my 30s!)
Going to bed angry
Going to counseling
Getting calls from collection agencies
Getting calls about fatal car accidents
Going to more funerals than I can count
Getting poison ivy for the first time (again, in my 30s!)
Realizing I’m now incredibly allergic to poison ivy
Leaving a church
Shopping for a new church
Shopping for bigger clothes (and shoes)
Putting my foot in my mouth in new and mortifying ways
Forgetting appointments, meetings, deadlines
Finding gray hair
Finding chin hair
I’m sure the list is even longer than that. And I’m sure you have your own list — a collection of experiences you never expected to have, never wanted to have, certainly didn’t believe you’d have at this age or alone or again. None of us can predict the challenges life will bring us. But at the same time, we’re unable to imagine the ways God will surprise us and delight us along the way.
Because if I really think about it, I know I could make a list of not just blessings that came from all those unwanted experiences, but beautiful, unexpected gifts that this life has brought me. And I’m not just talking about the big things, like traveling to Africa or having two amazing little girls. I’m talking about learning to hold on to hope, learning to jump out in faith, realizing that “choose joy” means more to me than the title of a book, figuring out what makes me come alive — and what I can walk away from now, forgiving that person I never thought I could, learning that sometimes I can actually agree to disagree, loving someone I didn’t even like before, accepting that who I am is who God made me to be — chin hairs and all.
Though I’m a big fan of control and planning and, yes, making to-do lists and bucket lists, I’m grateful that God doesn’t abide by my plans or expectations or assumptions.
I’m glad He looks at what I think my life will be like — and then goes ahead and does what He had planned for me all along. I’m thankful He continues to surprise me — by adding to my list of experiences, by opening my eyes to the blessings that come from the wonderful and the horrible, by delighting me with more than my imagination could ever dream or hope or expect.
Bucket lists are fun, and goals can be good. But what I’m looking forward to most is seeing what God accomplishes in my life, before I turn 40 and every year after.