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5 Wishes: Check Off Your Own 'Bucket List'
I learned how to change my life at an engagement party.
It was a celebration for a friend embarking on his fifth matrimonial adventure. "She is the woman of my dreams,” Max had told a group of us over lunch.
We were all therapists, so all of us had heard this kind of breathless declaration from our clients. The trouble was that we had all heard Max say the same thing about several other women in the past. Each one remained the woman of his dreams — right up until the first time she criticized him or disagreed with him on something. Then the dream usually devolved into a squabble over real estate. It was hard for me to get worked up about celebrating a new venture; I figured it was doomed from the start.
Then there were my own reasons for not wanting to go to this party. I was in the early stages of my relationship with Kathlyn, who's now my wife. She wanted to go to the party. I had agreed to take her, and I didn’t want to face her reaction if I changed my mind. But although I was deeply attracted to her, I was already feeling the early warning signs of the relationship’s demise. I could feel the old, familiar fear of commitment that caused me to look for things to criticize about her. That was another pattern of mine: to do something I didn’t want to do in order to avoid the unpleasantness of the other person’s disappointment or anger. Yet finally I decided to fulfill my obligation. I suited up, armed myself with my party smile, and marched forth.
How 'big talk' changed my life
We’d been at the party about an hour, and I was dutifully shuffling around from one guest to another. I’d just about given up trying to be convivial when I was introduced to a tall fellow named Ed. His restless fidgeting suggested that he was having about as much fun as I was. I mentioned this to him, and he endeared himself to me by saying, “I loathe parties — can’t stand the small talk.”
I told him I felt exactly the same way.
"Let’s not have any,” he said.
“Done deal,” I said, thinking our interaction was over. Instead, it had just begun. Ed tilted his head down and looked into my eyes. “Would you like to have some big talk or no talk at all?”
I thought this over for a moment. “I vote for big talk. You go first.”
Ed closed his eyes for a long moment. “Well,” he said, “once upon a time I almost died.”
I blinked. This definitely qualified as big talk. I waited to find out if he was going to say more. Finally I asked, “What was that like?”
“It wasn’t much fun at the time,” he said. “But now I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me .... It gave me the gift of a question — a question that I’ve been living with and growing with ever since."
"I could use a life change or two right now,” I said.
He smiled and said, “Okay. First, imagine you’re on your deathbed, tonight or fifty years from now. Imagine that I stand by your deathbed and look you right in the eyes and ask you, ‘Was your life a complete success?’
“If you said, ‘No, my life was not a complete success,’" he continued, "you would have some reasons why it wasn’t. For instance, J. Paul Getty, who was once the wealthiest man in the world, said on his deathbed, ‘I’d gladly give up all my millions for one experience of marital happiness.’ If he’d been granted a wish, that’s what he would have wished for.”
I could also feel a growing sense of anxiety in my belly.
“If you told me on your deathbed that your life had not been a success," he went on, "what would be the things you’d wish had happened that would have made it a success?”
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
Ed laughed. It turned out I was probably the only person at the party who didn’t know who Ed Steinbrecher was. As I found out, he was a famous spiritual teacher and the favorite astrologer of many prominent people in the entertainment world, as well as of the woman whose engagement we were celebrating. He came into my life at precisely the right time and penetrated to the heart of an issue I needed to face: What am I really doing here on this planet? What is my life purpose? Do I have a sacred mission?
I could still feel the anxiety, but also a growing sense of relief. It was as if he had given me permission to drop into a level of myself I had not been able to reach on my own. “It’s a big question,” I said. “Let me think about it and get back to you.”
He shook his head impatiently. “The bigger the question, the more important it is to answer it right now. This moment is all the time you need. It’s the only one we have.”
I felt another wave of relief. He hadn’t let me, the master wriggler, wriggle off the hook. So there on the spot, I closed my eyes and took a long, slow breath. From deep inside me, I invited the answers to his question, and suddenly there they were, as if they’d been waiting all along for me to beckon them.
Turning wishes into goals and commitments
“Okay,” I said. “Here is the number-one thing that would make my life a total success. My wish would be for a long-term, loving relationship —”
Ed stopped me, shaking his head. “Look at it from the perspective of your deathbed. Put it in the past tense, and do it first from the perspective that your life was not a success.”
I tried again.
My life was not a total success because
I never enjoyed a long and happy marriage
with a woman I adored and who adored me.
I wish I’d enjoyed a lifelong blossoming of
passion and creativity with a woman.
Ed nodded. “Good. Now, tell me why that’s important to you.”
Even though I’d never consciously thought about why this goal was important to me, I found it easy to tell Ed my reasons; there was something about him that made deep inquiry simple and matter-of-fact. I rattled off my reasons: First, to have this kind of relationship would accomplish something I had never seen in the world, and certainly not in my family of origin. Second, to enjoy lasting love with a woman would mean that my moment-to-moment experience would be rich and joyful. Third, I had a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and had counseled thousands of people on their issues and concerns. What good, I asked Ed, was all that training and practice if I couldn’t learn to experience genuine, lasting love with one other human being?
Ed nodded his understanding. “Okay, now turn the wish into a goal, and put it in the present tense, as if it’s happening at this moment.”
I rearranged the words in my head.
My life is a total success because I’m enjoying a
long and happy marriage with a woman I adore
and who adores me. I’m enjoying a lifelong
blossoming of passion and creativity with her.
I spoke it aloud to Ed, who listened carefully.
“Is that something you really want?” he asked.
“And is that something you’re willing to commit yourself to, body and soul?”
I immediately felt a gut-dropping sensation of fear, but in spite of the wave of terror, I said, “Yes.” Remarkably, as soon as I said it, the fear disappeared completely.
I felt my whole body light up with an inner smile. I had no idea if I could accomplish this goal, but I knew I would die unsatisfied if I did not commit myself body and soul to the quest. Getting clear on this goal and its importance to me awakened a burst of energy and aliveness I could feel all over.
Ed then asked me to express each of my other Five Wishes and helped me restate them as goals. Through our conversation, I finally articulated them as ...
I wish I’d said all the things I never got around to
saying to my friends and extended family. I wish
I’d confessed some secrets I was holding. I wish
I’d told some people how much I loved and
appreciated them. I wish I’d told my daughter how
sad I felt that I’d broken some promises to her.
My life is a complete success because I live in a
state of completion with all my friends and family.
I say all the important things I need to say, and do
all the important things I need to do. As I go through
life, there’s nothing significant I leave unsaid or undone.
I could feel the weight and pressure inside me of many incompletions with friends, family, and long-lost acquaintances. There were many things I’d left unsaid, many promises I’d broken, many amends I needed to make. I could feel the peace and clarity that would come from saying the things that needed to be said and handling the things I had left undone. At that moment I had no idea how I might go about completing all those things, but I knew I had to try.
I was getting the hang of it. As I committed to each goal, I felt the sensation of energy and lightness in me, as if all the cells of my body were smiling at once.
I wish I’d generated a complete written
record of everything of significance I had
learned during my time on earth.
My life is a success because I write about what
is sacred to me. I generate an ongoing record
of everything of significance that I learn.
My chosen path was as a teacher and writer, but at the time I did not feel I was teaching and writing about the things of greatest significance to me. I was still in the grip of the objective, scientific tradition of standing back and observing things from a distance, but I was feeling a deep urge to do a more personal kind of research. For example, nobody had ever explored the inner world of feelings from a scientific and personal perspective. I wanted to document my personal journey of learning, so that others who were interested might benefit from my experiences. Beyond that, though, I felt exhilaration at the thought of writing about the things that deeply mattered to me. I knew that I would die unfulfilled if I did not turn myself inside out and go to the limits of my creative ability.
Now I was feeling so much in the flow that all I had to do was open my mouth and the words tumbled out.
I feel the presence of God all the time,
everywhere I go. I know what divinity is
and how the universe was created.
Even as a child I had felt an almost allergic reaction to intellectual discussions of religion. I think some part of me knew about the destructive power of divisive beliefs, as well as the essential fruitlessness of mental concepts detached from direct experience.
My life was not a total success because I
rushed through it. I never stopped to savor the
precious moments along the way.
My life is a success because I savor
every moment of it along the way.
It was crystal clear to me why I wanted to enjoy the journey every step of the way. Growing up, I saw people all around me who were not having a good time. Some were slogging through life, just going through the motions, leading lives of quiet desperation. Others were suffering their way along, and many of those seemed to go out of their way to create their own suffering. I didn’t want any part of that. I didn’t yet know exactly what the meaning of life was, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t “Get born, have a bad time, then die.”
Don't put it on your list; put it in your life
“Where are you with achieving each of those goals?” Ed asked.
I gave him my realistic appraisal: so far, my list was mostly just a bunch of good ideas.
He nodded. “That’s where I was when I started.”
I asked him to tell me more about his own deathbed experience. He said that as he lay there, not knowing if he would live or die, he found himself wishing he had done certain things that would have given his life meaning. He suddenly realized, though, that he was setting his standards far too low by merely wishing for a meaningful life. Why not wish for a magnificent life of complete fulfillment? He promised himself and God that if he were fortunate enough to live, he would devote his full energy to attaining the goals of greatness.
He recovered, and went on to complete them all successfully. “That’s why every time I get a chance," he said, "I ask everyone who looks like they have a spark of consciousness to figure out their deathbed goals.”
We looked at each other in silence for a moment. There was nothing left to say. We shook hands, and he turned toward the door.
“Wait,” I said. “Any last-minute advice for me?”
He gave me a wink. “Get busy.”
I took that advice.
From "Five Wishes: How Answering One Simple Question Can Make Your Dreams Come True" by Gay Hendricks Copyright © 2010 New World Library. Republished with permission.