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My Life List

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Things to do while you're alive.

I know of 67 people who would like to build an igloo.

There are at least 4050 people who say that they intend to "be a better friend" than they have been.

And 5996 others plan to start waking up when their alarm clocks goes off.

These are just three of the items that members list as life goals on the Web site In the past three years, more than 1.2 million idealists have signed up and posted their customized lists of things they would like to accomplish on this world before they die.

Sky diving ranks 24th in popularity, but the leading life goal is quite predictable: weight loss.

The idea of having people ponder their mortality and then charting their life's road map has truly arrived. Besides the millions of people who publish their lists on Web sites like the one mentioned, millions more are buying and reading best sellers like, "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die," " 101 Things To Do Before You Turn 40," and, "1000 Places to See Before You Die."

A film by Rob Reiner, "Bucket List," about two terminal cancer patients who set out on a series of life-list adventures, is due out in December. And Visa is running a popular ad campaign called, "Things to Do While You're Alive."

What's going on? Why are people becoming so contemplative, goal oriented, and focused on dreams of accomplishment? It's hard to say, but it does seem that people are coming to terms with the reality that life is precious, finite, and made for productivity.

Of course, not everyone's definition of achievement is the same. The lists are testimony to that. Living with the head hunters of New Guinea, climbing the Matterhorn during a blizzard, or retracing the route of Marco Polo through all of the Middle East, Asia, and China may be fulfillment to some, while changing your name for a year, pulling 101 great pranks, or re-structuring your closets at home may be dreams come true to someone else. No matter. To each his own. People just seem to want to get things done. And making these Life To Do lists seems to help.

The most famous success story of this genre is John Goddard. When he was but 15 years of age, John took out a plain yellow pad one day, wrote the words, "My Life List," at the top and proceeded to compose a collection of 127 goals.

These were not simple or easy goals. They included climbing the world's major mountains, exploring from source to mouth the longest rivers of the world, piloting the world's fastest aircraft, running a mile in five minutes and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Now in his 70's, this real-life Indiana Jones claims to have accomplished 109 of these quests, and has logged an impressive list of records in achieving them.

But while the recent development of considering one's objectives and designing a plan of action may be trendy, or at least newsworthy to the general populace, it is nothing new to Judaism. In fact, it happens to be the hallmark of the annual process that Jews everywhere should be engaged in every year before Rosh Hashana. It is an integral part of the teshuva (return) procedure that enjoins us to make a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual inventory of what our time, effort and resources should be invested in.

Ideally, this soulful stock-taking should really be a constant, ongoing, almost daily process where, with the proper awareness, a person would always know what his Life List looks like and what items need some additional attention. Those who live their lives with that level of cognizance are always seeking to better themselves and are getting the most out of life.

But sadly, you and I know few people whose lives are permeated with that kind of dedication to self-improvement. Somewhat more common are those who take advantage of the Holiday season and, at least once a year, give some pause to what they would like to accomplish.

Forget the igloo and the coyote. You've got important things to do.

So, if the reflective mood hits you, and you want to take this seriously, the first step is to take out that yellow pad of paper and write, "My Life List" on it. But be forewarned. You may find this very simple, seemingly trivial task quite difficult. It means that you are embarking on something potentially sublime, and that can be very scary. But the good news is that once this terribly uncomplicated task is accomplished, you've already overcome a major obstacle and you are on your way.

The next step is to write -- just write -- any idea that comes to mind. Don't filter and don't falter -- just write. The ideas may seem silly, impractical, superficial, or out of reach, but this is not the time to sharpen your editing skills. If it strikes you that you might want to shoot pictures at a friend's wedding, buy a high-powered telescope or invite 50 people for Shabbat dinner -- write it down.

After you have compiled this unedited list of your potential life goals, put the list away for at least 24 hours. You need a full day of breathing space before you can return to the job. Now examine the list again with a fine eye and delete the impossible stuff. Imagine that your best friend is reading your list. Which items would he/she immediately declare as undoable? Take only those out.

Finally, feel free to add any additional goals that strike your fancy now.

But allow me to add one more point.

People who are sincere about using this tool to increase their chances of accomplishing more in life, should take advantage of the opportunity by making a majority of their targets truly meaningful ones.

There may be nothing wrong with becoming a world class sudoku player, learning how to whistle while standing on your head, or memorizing the lyrics to every Lynryd Skynyrd song ever recorded. And perhaps a few of those "less serious" objectives should be included on your list. But primarily, you don't want to "waste" your choices on the frivolous or the mundane.

Take these examples, chosen from actual Life Lists. I guess learning jujitsu has merit, but why would owning a coyote qualify as a goal in life? Alphabetizing my CD collection is probably a functional thing to do, as is learning how to weld, but are they really dreams that must be realized? Some people yearn to floss more often, or to type with ten fingers -- nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but appearing in a Tarzan movie? Or lighting a match with a .22 rifle?

Rosh Hashana is swiftly approaching. It is a time when Jews worldwide seek ways to crown the Almighty as the true king of the Universe. Reflecting on your purpose on this planet and then actualizing your quest to reach that end may just be the greatest way possible to coronate Him.

Tithe your earnings, intensify your prayers, call your folks and your grandparents, keep Kosher for a month, affix a mezuzah to your door, donate blood, attend a lecture series, have a catch with your son once a week, bring soup to Nursing Home residents, make a date with your soul, learn how to say, "I was wrong," -- and practice it, drive with courtesy, smile -- the list could on forever. But we won't go on forever. Maybe now would be a good time to get started.

Forget the igloo and the coyote. You've got important things to do.

Have a wonderful... and productive new year.


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