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To-Do Lists (Or What Could Have Been)

May 9, 2015.

I could have graduated today.

I should have graduated last year.

I could have graduated Baylor with my class.

But I didn’t.

(Yes, this might be a “wallow” post. I often jump back and forth between shallow posts and wallow posts. I guess I’m just melancholic sometimes. Maudlin. Morose. “Woe is me!”  Well, people complained that Rich Mullins was morose, so I suppose I’m in good company.)

In 8th grade, I had a little notebook. It was my To-Do List for life. I wrote all sorts of stuff in there. Big goals, little goals, life goals and dreams. Achievable and impossible. Things I knew I could cross off tomorrow– and things I knew I would never be able to accomplish. I wished, I hoped, sure– but I knew deep down, “This isn’t me.” Or maybe not. Maybe I was more optimistic than I am now. No, scratch that. Maybe I was more optimistic than I am now.

The younger you are, the more you dream. Or the more you believe your dreams could come to life. Life is a race. When you start out, you can see yourself crossing the finish line, accepting the gold medal, hearing the crowd cheer. But eventually you hit the wall. Some hit it sooner than others. But you hit a wall, and all you can focus on is staying in motion. Maybe you’ll get a second win. Maybe not. But you doubt you’ll get first place. Or second. Or third. You know you won’t. You know.

When you write a to-do list, you are writing a message to a future self. You are placing trust in that person, saying, “I believe you can do this!” Sometimes we recognize that future self is human– but often we place an impossible burden upon their shoulders. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”  Actually, no. “Tomorrow Me will do it tomorrow.” We add a 64th item to the list and assume that tomorrow we will wake up with the strength of Superman, the mental acumen of Professor X, and the unbeatable joy of Buddy the Elf.  

Or at least I do.

I’ve always thought that my future self/selves will have it more together than my present selves.

 When you’re a kid, you think that everything will turn out great. I remember as a 4 year old, we were supposed to write about our future. I wrote that I would marry my then-girlfriend (yep, my 4 year old self had more game than I do today) Erin, we’d have two kids, and I’d be a farmer/mailman/teacher/scientist.

While I eventually realized that wasn’t coming true, you do have certain ideals growing up. You’ll have a girlfriend by 15, an amazing car by 17, a million friends in college by 19, a full time job by 22, a wife by 23, a family by 24, a beautiful house by 25– and then you’re set for life. And as you grow up, you push back the timeline again and again and again.

I still had some of that optimism when I graduated high school. You enter “the real world” as everyone calls it and you plan to learn, to develop skills, and to find your purpose in life. There is purpose to the process: you graduate, go to college or start working somewhere, meet new people, find out what you’re good at, try new things, and find your way.

I’ve compared it to an astronaut launching into space– it’s exciting, they’re really going somewhere, everyone says “I can’t wait to see what you’ll do!” and cheers them on. But after four years on the shuttle, their mission is ending– or changing, at least. And now you are being released into space… to float… on your own… until you land somewhere… maybe. I know plenty of friends that have felt like they are just floating now. I know I’ve felt like that a lot of time.

I could have graduated Baylor in 2011. But I tried living with some new friends in a great apartment, I lost a bunch of money on a stupid auction, I began failing classes, I felt abandoned by my friends, and I fell into depression. In many ways, I’m still in that pit today. I finished that year with my family’s help and moved back home. I worked hard and finished my final thesis and graduated in 2012. And everything worked out.

Well, sort of.

I went to Wheaton, imagining my move to be a noble journey where I could walk in the footsteps of some of the greats: Billy Graham, Philip Yancey, Todd Beamer, Jim Elliot, etc. And perhaps I could become great myself. And sure, a lot of good things have happened. I’ve gone through a Masters Program. I’ve worked at a church in my area of studies. I’ve made many friends and gained many experiences.

But it’s been a struggle from day one.

I’ve learned that I’m not Billy Graham– and that’s ok.

I’ve learned that academia is not for me (which I kinda already knew).

I’ve experienced a lot of the background drama of working at a church.

I’ve lost friends and failed to do all the things I wished I could have done.

So what did I do once I decided it was time to return to Texas?

I made a To-Do List. 25 items that I hoped I could cross off by mid-July.

A few of them:

  • Leave good review of apartment
  • Eat at Uno’s
  • Eat at Gino’s East
  • Visit Frank Lloyd Wright locations
  • See Michael Aukofer

A few new experiences, a few chances to wrap up my time here. But the list also included:

  • Attend another Wheaton chapel
  • Attend another Wheaton grad chapel
  • Visit Christianity Today, Tyndale, or other publishers
  • Visit every building at Wheaton
  • Go see Daniel

Honestly, these items would have been fun to check off… but ultimately, I didn’t want to simply go to one more Wheaton chapel. I wanted to feel better about never going to a Wheaton chapel. I wanted to go to Christianity Today so I wouldn’t feel like an idiot for never visiting even though I drove past it every day on my way to Wheaton. I wanted to see my friend who moved a couple hours away not just to see him, but because I wish we had been better friends while we lived closer to each other.

So a to-do list reflects who you want to be– and who you wished you could have been.

It records our hopes and dreams as well as our attempts to redeem (or cover up) our guilt and regrets.

Instead of focusing on what is, you focus on what (never) was or what might (never) be. And you miss out the true value of making to-do lists– being fully present and living life to its fullest, doing the most important things you can do.

But I suppose “of making many books there is no end,” as it says in Ecclesiastes; and of making many to-do lists there is no end as well.

Unless you simply stop because you don’t have anything to look forward to and feel nothing for the life you are living.

There have been periods of my life where I have felt nothing but that: apathy. A lack of feeling. A lack of care or concern. A lack of drive.

I would wake up and fill my day with browsing the Internet, watching TV, napping, eating, and going to the bathroom. Then head to bed and start all over again. Each day would blur into each other until I lost track of times and dates and reasons to change. I hated life, but didn’t feel hard enough to change. To make to-do lists, you have to hope for something better. You have to feel that making changes, that doing anything, is worth the effort. You have to believe that you can change. You have to trust that life has purpose. And there are seasons where trust like that is simply impossible.

But one day you break through.

You make a new to-do list.

And you try until you cross it off.

And that is Life.

Trying.

Growing.

Failing.

And Succeeding.

Letting Go.

And Moving On.

Crossing one thing off at a time.

Living one day at a time.

One moment a time.

Grace upon grace.

I wish I could say I had it all figured out, and remembered all these truths through my darkest days– but I forget. I fail and freak out and stumble along. But season follows season and eventually spring comes along with new energy and new light. Let’s hope it lasts for a while.

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