Nowadays the “bucket list” concept has become a wildly popular cultural meme, thanks to the movie of the same name. Subsequent marketing of the idea to millennials has proven a successful means to derive them of their income, with which they seem eager to part.
I don’t like the concept. The list, I mean, not necessarily the plucking of the millennial chickens who willingly hand over their financial feathers. They get what they deserve.
Bucketlist.org has, at the time of this writing, more than 5.317 million “dreams” for you to pursue. Contributed by more than 450,000 people. And your individual dream? Part of the Borg’s list. Pretty hard to think of something original that the previous 450,000 folks didn’t already add to the list.
Just search “bucket list” on Google and you’ll turn up close to 52 million hits, and a huge number of them are selling something, from New Age codswallop to travel to high-tech gadgets and everything in-between. Nowadays, “your” bucket list is everyone’s bucket list and has become part of a slick campaign aimed at your wallet. At every corner there’s some entrepreneur eager to play Virgil to your hollow life’s Dante, for a price.
A bucket list is, we learned from the film, the wish list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the metaphorical bucket – i.e. die – as a means to give your previously pathetic life some substance. That notion quickly morphed into a commercial selling point, and it seems I encounter it every day in some new form, usually on social media. It’s up there with posts about puppies, angels, magic crystals, and nasty troll posts about liberals.
The movie is about two seniors undergoing an end-of-life crisis trying to figure out the Meaning of It All. They resolve to avoid dwelling on their inevitable end by taking very expensive trips around the world (Jack Nicholson plays a billionaire…). It’s a cute, moving film. It’s fiction, but also a great marketing idea. We are all susceptible to Hollywood, after all. And, of course, we all have billionaire friends who will buy the tickets, right?
Okay, I get it: we all want life to make sense, and to have meaning that makes the 9-5 grind worthwhile. But even if our lives are meaningless, we don’t want to die, either. We want to be able to say something we did made the journey worth the effort. But is this the way? Is life simply a series of boxes we check off? A list that keeps growing with more and more items to check? Your self esteem will suffer if you don’t check this off. And this. And this. And this…
Every visit to a bookstore shows me titles like “500 movies to see before you die” or places to visit, foods to eat, beaches to sunbathe on, museums to visit, cars to drive and so on. Maybe even 1,000 items, places or activities. I could spend my remaining life just trying to watch all the movies I’m supposed to see before I die (and what life would that be? Some sort of Twilight Zone episode lived in the dark…)
Facebook posts (mostly ads) prompt me to take hikes, visit islands, listen to music or watch a movie because, otherwise, my life will be a void, bereft of meaning. The New Yorker noted, in 2014:
Patricia Schultz’s “1000 Places to See Before You Die”—Cliveden, the Grand Canyon—has spawned an entire catalogue of spinoffs for its publisher, Workman, including the forthcoming “1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” by Mimi Sheraton. (Some of these, such as frozen Milky Way bars, seem likely to hustle you along a little more quickly.) Goodreads offers a “Books to Read Before You Die” list, which includes not just “Middlemarch” and “Pride and Prejudice” but also Mitch Albom’s potentially useful primer, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”
Life is presented in these lists as incomplete without having done, seen, accomplished, visited or whatever verb comes to mind, the selected list before you die. Selected, of course, by someone who apparently knows more or better than you (and generally will sell you the experience, too).
As if the present, the now wasn’t enough. As if actually having lived a long life wasn’t an accomplishment in itself. We’re conditioned by marketing, advertising and PR to follow the herd.
Not that any of these things are, per se, bad. It’s just that personal accomplishments have become reduced to commercial ventures and we are all encouraged to take the same trips, eat at the same formerly obscure restaurants, fly to the same previously remote destinations, engage in the same once-extreme activities and so on. These events, these places and activities, cease to be individual or exotic, and our bucket lists start to look like the programming for a whole cruise ship.
You should do things because you want to, because they fulfill something in you, and not because someone else says they are essential to your inner growth or spiritual fulfillment (or whatever New Age piffle is being spouted). But here’s the catch: they actually don’t matter to the end because no matter how many times you skydive, soak in a spa in Fiji or watch a sunrise from Kilimanjaro, you will still die. And so will everyone who didn’t do them.*
It’s not like you’ll be sitting around some cloud in heaven, drinking no-fat soya chai lattes with angels and telling them about how you hooked that big bonita in the Sea of Cortez on your bucket list voyage. When you die, it’s over. The lights go out, your consciousness winks out and the thing that is you ceases to be. Sorry to disappoint you, but there is no afterlife in which your bucket list will be meaningful.
Your digital photos? They won’t last, either.
So for the living, I am uneasy telling people they are unfulfilled for failing to attend to desires they may not have even felt before viewing someone else’s list. With telling people they can find happiness by chasing someone else’s dreams or visions. Telling people that some artificial, material accomplishment is the answer to life’s questions.
Sure, you shouldn’t put off everything exciting, engaging or fun until the end of your life. You won’t be fulfilled at 85 by things you should have done at 25. A senior surfing the curls in Hawaii for the first time doesn’t make all the previous decades of dreary cubicle life go away.
Yes, it’s entertaining, challenging and fun in a masochistic way to climb Mount Everest. A real test of your stamina and endurance, sort of. Certainly a test of your ability to pay for modern equipment, guides to carry your stuff, GPS, oxygen, the latest gear and clothing, and the technology to take selfies to document your experience. But it’s been done by others before you. In fact, thousands of people have scaled it and more shell out small fortunes very year to make the attempt. Even when they reach the top, they are not modern analogues of Edmund Hillary. They are merely rich tourists.
Real adventurers don’t take the path the crowd is on. But thanks to modern technology, there really aren’t many unwalked paths left to take. Everest is as much as tourist destination as Disneyland, just more expensive.
Call it my mash-up of Buddhist and Stoic philosophies, but it strikes me that attending to the here and now is actually more fulfilling and could even make a difference. I want to see a list that motivates people towards the greater good, not a five-star vacation.
The real challenge we all face, every day, is simply getting to the end of that day alive, whole and unharmed. After that, everything is dessert.
The second of the Four Noble Truths states, more or less, that the cause of human misery and suffering is desire. Clinging and craving bind us. Number three says that you can’t climb up the ladder to enlightenment unless you rid yourself of craving. Hard to do when you’re bombarded by ads telling you to crave this or that item, event or meal. Yet you can do it.
Sure, there are pseudo-Buddhist and nebulous “spiritual” bucket lists, one which encourages me to “Become the best version of yourself with our free weekly tips!” I was unaware that I had failed to be the best me without their weekly tips until I saw that. It serves up a list of New Age balderdash, the sort of thing that Conrad Black might call “diaphanous piffle”: Experience complete bliss. Find inner peace, Learn to live in alignment with spiritual values, including forgiveness, compassion, love for others, and gratitude, Do all the lessons in “A Course in Miracles”.
Yes, I know: New Age bafflegab makes me break out in hives, too, but it’s not uncommon. Bucket lists range wildly from the extreme (like travelling into space, a trip generally unattainable by all but the mega-rich) to rather drab daily tasks like organizing family photos or reading books.** And a lot of piffle in between. But they’re all selling the same notion: do this or your life is an empty shell and we’ll mock you.
As Philosophy Basics notes,
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.
So in that sense, can you argue the “bucket list” chase is the individual exercising choice, freedom and finding purpose in irrationality? Maybe. But where is the meaning? Where is the purpose? Are you really embracing existence or simply shuffling along in the queue with the other “adventure” tourists waiting your turn on the glass walkway over the canyon?
Where are the ethical, moral options? Where is the charity, the social significance? Taking a tour bus to the pyramids and climbing to the top, spending a day wandering around the fences at Stonehenge, seeing Antarctic penguins from the bow of your comfortable cruise ship… are these more meaningful than, say, volunteering at the local hospital? Do they benefit anyone more than donating to the local animal shelter? Do they help anyone but yourself?
To me, that’s the crux: bucket lists are big grab bags of selfish desires, like those ‘if I won the lottery’ daydream ads that get you to believe money answers all your questions, solves all your problems, especially when you didn’t have to work for it. (Just once I’d like to see a story about a lottery winner who proclaimed he or she was going to use the money to make their community a better place…)
Imagine what could be done at the local library if the money spent on one trip to Everest was donated there, instead. Your trip up Everest? It’s a passing fad that no one else will give a damn about. Once you die, it’s all meaningless. But a big donation to the library could benefit generations.
Self is the big marker in all of this. Myself. Doing things for me. That’s the texture of the Selfie Generation. And that’s what the Bucket List is all about: me. Me, me, me. It’s not about what you contribute, what you accomplish for the greater good, what you do for others. The bucket list is a selfish (and selfie) notion that you and you alone can accomplish.
And what do you have when the adventure is over? Some digital photos on your phone. Your tweets and posts on social media quickly vanish on the ever-streaming timeline (Facebook created the “your memories” feature to remind people they have a life beyond the now). Sure, you have a story you can tell, but after the umpteenth telling, your friends have become bored and are staring at their own cell phones for more interesting content. The excitement is unsustainable. It existed in the moment and now its gone for everyone. Even your memories of it will fade. Especially if you keep looking for new adventures to top it. Jennifer baker wrote on the Psychology Today site:
“I have rappelled down the mountains of Peru and those other poor suckers have not.”
This type of effort would make a person, according to traditional virtue ethics, less happy in the end. Your character will suffer from the mistake of introducing, and coming to depend upon, this shaky basis for evaluating others. It might feel good in the short term to lord your exotic trips over others, but the hangover will come.
Annette White, on Bucketlistjourney.net is a good example of the self-centred nature of the bucket list. She has a list of almost 900 things she wants to do. All of them for herself. None for the benefit of anyone else. None of them develop relationships with others. None of them are work-related – you know, that place where you spend the majority of your waking hours – or make your daily grind more meaningful. That so well defines the millennials.
As Jennifer Baker wrote in Psychology Today:
…the notion of the bucket list “legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?”
The old joke about the tourists on the bus tour: if it’s Paris it must be Thursday. On the Art of Manliness site, the author discusses how he sums up the bucket list for his generation quite nicely:
… seeing one played out on television made me realize how hungry guys in my generation and socio-economic bracket are to find meaning in their lives, and how hard it is to come up with meaningful avenues to do so. In a world without norms, a very comfortable world without the age old challenge of simply meeting one’s basic needs, we have been forced to invent checklists of random items in hopes they can guide us to a fuller life. But the challenges we pick for ourselves will never ultimately satisfy our need for a feeling of purpose or fulfillment.
You want to accomplish something for posterity, then look beyond your own pleasures. Not that you have to be Mother Theresa, but you can write a book, compose a symphony, craft legislation, record a song, teach a child – something that someone else will appreciate, benefit from, enjoy. But if that is outside your range, then adopt a pet from an animal shelter, give a homeless person $100, plant a community garden. Take a senior in a nursing home to lunch. Volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Take a page from the Stoics: do something for someone else, something not entirely selfish that doesn’t require a selfie to record your experience. Something that you do because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’ll bask in lots of likes on Facebook when you post it.
That’s the sort of thing a real bucket list should have on it.
* If you’re old enough to recall the ‘turn of the millennium’ madness that gripped gullible people in 1999. Thousands of folk paid mega-bucks to be on some Pacific island to see the first sunrise of 2000, completely oblivious to the fact that calendars, date lines and time zones are arbitrary constructs, and that the actual millennium began on January 1, 2001, not 2000. Many bucket list experiences are of this sort: commercial, expensive vacations for the hard of thinking.
** Yeah, yeah. If I had one of these self-centred bucket lists, it would have a lot of ‘read this book before I die’ references. Not that having finally finished Ulysses will get me into some mythical heaven any sooner than watching the Bachelorette, but at least I could be smug about it.