Since an eponymous 2007 film, it has come to stand for a checklist of things to do before one dies.
In any bookstore you can find tomes consisting of lists of things to do before you “kick the bucket.” Fifty Places to See Before You Die, or 100 pieces of music to hear before shuffling off this mortal coil. A Hundred Books to Read before commencing to pine for the fjords.
Of course there are places I’d like to go with my children, and adventures I hope to be able to share with them. I’d even like to be the kind of person who could parachute out of a plane or zip line through a rainforest, but none of my hopes and dreams in this life consists of solitary indulgence.
My problem is with parading around with “bucket lists”; I recoil from their premises.
1. They seem ragingly self-serving, to no greater purpose.
One need look no further than the 2007 movie, in which a cancer-stricken character travels the world checking off goals like riding a motorcycle on China’s Great Wall and driving a Mustang . . . all the while putting yet more distance between himself and the daughter whose estrangement he claims to bemoan.
2. They tend to highlight conspicuous consumption and rarefied privilege.
So you want to have pizza delivered by drone? Go on a lion safari? Fly to France for dinner at the Chevre d’Or? If you possess the financial means, have at it. Nothing wrong with spending your resources as you see fit. But to me it is distasteful to tick off expensive gimmicks which benefit no one else and treat them as monumental notches on the post of life.
3. You Can’t Make Magic Happen.
On the rare occasions when the movie characters’ bucket lists veered away from partaking of the seven deadly sins, they purported to aspire to something slightly grander than a big-ticket macho event–like “witness something truly majestic.”
I wonder first at the timidity of wanting only to “witness”–to use one sense, implicitly from a disengaging distance–a magnificent sight.
More fundamentally, I believe you can’t plan to experience something magnificent any more than you can plan to encounter a “thin space.” Magic happens, but you can’t buy it, you can’t summon it at will, and it tends to require being engaged with all of your senses–and sometimes a sixth.
4. It’s All About Me.
One character in “The Bucket List” belatedly met his granddaughter, then checked off from his list “kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.”
First, Blechh (as my husband Jim would have said with regard to this cloying plot point).
Second, let’s consider what did not appear on that list–like reconciling with his daughter, meeting and making up for lost time with his granddaughter, or telling either one of them how important she was to him.
5. Tossing around a term like “bucket list” trivializes the experience of terminal illness.
This is a particularly sore spot with me. Although I concede being more sensitive than some on the subject, obviously nearly everyone eventually will experience either his own terminal illness or that of a person he loves beyond measure.
In the film, the cancer patients who took off with bucket lists in hand were in fine enough fettle to cavort around the globe, away from their families, at untold expense.
They were not so exhausted from treatment that they slept eighteen hours a day.
Their veins were not swimming with chemotherapy drugs which would have made enjoying food impossible, or made it seem like they were swallowing crushed glass as they sipped French champagne at a four-star restaurant.
They likely did not spend time pondering whether they would feel well or solvent enough to take one last family trip, or whether they should invest in travel insurance if they did, or what it would be like for their families if they were to die far away from home.
Their minds did not dwell on the prospects of their beloved children, siblings, and parents continuing to need them, and on the devastating grief they knew would be experienced by the people they loved.
The lists Jim made weren’t for him at all, and broke my heart.
There was nothing whimsical about them.
When he was undergoing aggressive treatment he sat at his desk and on a yellow pad started to write out things I’d need to do in the yard every fall to stave off abject disarray.
“I can’t, I’m not ready to think about that,” I said, selfishly, from over his right shoulder, as I tried to wipe away silent tears with my forearm, before they splashed onto the wide old pine floorboards.
“But it will be easier for me,” he said softly.
That was all that mattered.
After he died, I burst into tears every time I opened a file in his desk drawer and saw that he had spent time making meticulous lists–even spreadsheets with “worst case scenarios”–to help me handle finances and keep track of the children’s tuition payments; his medical deductions, which splintered into endless lists of co-payments and prescriptions and medical minutiae; the resources he’d put aside for a retirement he’d never have.
Before I die, I don’t want to amass a list and check off things I’d like to do.
I want to learn to be a better parent, a better person. I want to be more like Jim, who had no end-of-life list for himself, and used his short time to be with his family and friends; to fully appreciate all that was around him rather than consider what he had lost; and to leave his profession and our world better for the gift of his time and his being.