Kick the bucket list

Bucket lists have a grim quality about them. Once they’re completed, what else is there to live for? They nag at you. Even if life gets in the way of completion, they sit impatiently to be done. They are potentially dangerous; things you always wanted in your youth might now be dangerous or foolhardy in later years. They represent delayed gratification; a future reward for living the right life now –a bit like heaven.

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Retirement planers like bucket lists because they provide a reason why you to employ them. You’ve probably seen the ads. Buy that sailboat you always wanted and sail to Australia. Scale that mountain you only saw from a distance when young. You, too, can realize the dreams of your youthful-you in your new “mature” body.

There’s nothing wrong with lists. I make them all the time: things around the house that need fixing like the front door hinge. There’s nothing wrong with hopes and goals. The difference between those and a bucket list is that hopes and goals are a dynamic process, a direction, whereas bucket-list items are mere markers along that path.

Andrew Stark finds bucket lists a bit strange (Globe and Mail, December 30, 2016). “And so, as we spy the tip of the reaper’s cowl poking up over the horizon, we begin to write bucket lists. Lists full of concrete, vivid experiences that we hope to enjoy and savour for themselves, and vague status-oriented goals so empty of specificity that we couldn’t possibly value them for themselves.

“Bucket lists typically feature two kinds of items. First are desires, before the end comes, to experience the kinds of moments that bucket-listers tend to find valuable, pleasurable or enjoyable in and of themselves. Typical examples: ‘Swim naked in the Caribbean.’ ‘Be at Chichen Itza on December 12, 2020.’”

The trouble with concrete items is that we confuse specific tasks for the real goals we aim for. Climbing a mountain is part of a longing to enjoy the outdoors and remain fit. The things you might do to achieve those goals are a series, none of them worth listing. You no sooner finish one and the next becomes apparent.

“The second kind of item is the kind of thing that will bring success, status or money, such as ‘write a book,’ or “break or set a world record.’”

These things on a bucket list are more aspirational than concrete. We may want to “complete a great painting.” What we really long for is artistic expression. A friend of mine who calls himself a “tin-basher (heating and air conditioner contractor)” remarked with satisfaction on the completion duct work he completed; already realizing the art of a job creatively done.

Aspirational and concrete things on a bucket list are mere clues to a deeper understanding of what we long for.

“The bucket list is a recent innovation,” adds Stark. “The human psychology it lays bare –our tendency to conceive of things we value for themselves in concrete, particular terms. . .”

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