Around the time I graduated from high school, as I was deciding on the kind of life I would have and the man I would be, I wrote a list entitled “Things to do before I die.” The list was not very long, perhaps six items at most. It included mostly adventures and experiences I thought would express a life well lived.
I have since lost the original version of that list. I can only remember three items.
1. Be on the cover of GQ
2. Go whitewater rafting
3. Make out in the pouring rain
It is clear I attached a similar importance to experiences of wildly different likelihood. I would reference my list in times of boredom, adding to it occasionally. Never specifically making plans, just running my eyes over it as though soothing my brain.
It is also clear I had no idea who I was or what I was going to be. The achievements I needed before I died received so much of my attention. I wanted so badly to live a fulfilling life yet I didn’t understand how one did that. A written collection of significant milestones made it easier for me to believe I would one day amount to something.
I have always thought more about who I wanted to be than what. While the process of choosing a career felt mind-numbing and difficult, thinking of what kind of man I might be brought great joy. I fantasized a renaissance life for myself. Again, I made no concrete plans to achieve such a life, but I sure thought about it a lot.
Then, while I was in college, a movie called “The Bucket List” came out. The premise was two terminally ill men create a list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” From that moment on, the term bucket list became a staple in our society’s vocabulary.
It went from a word pair people had never heard of to the title of how-to articles and books. Suddenly it seemed every person had created and memorized their own bucket list. Adding things to your bucket list was a worthy topic of regular conversation. It does not seem hyperbolic to say people added to their bucket list at a much faster rate than they crossed things off.
While the teenage me attached great significance to his list of things to do before he died, the arrival of the bucket list in our collective conscience felt superficial, a codified register of desires arising from the social pressure of being a part of the conversation. My own list no longer felt significant but trivial and stupid, the late night exercise of an insecure boy with an active imagination.
Today, despite my best efforts, there are still future experiences I feel so very compelled to have. While I know on an ideological level those things will not guarantee me a fulfilling life, parts of me feel the “need” to have those experiences anyway. So I can understand the fervor and excitement with which we as a culture add things to our bucket lists.
But it seems to have become more of a hobby than an exercise indicated by how we talk to each other. “What’s on your bucket list?” is the question we ask. We don’t ask “How are you working towards successfully achieving your bucket list?” The longer the bucket list stayed in popular culture, the more it began to feel like a grim exercise. I would venture to say most people will probably die with much of their bucket list incomplete.
Imagining your future in some idealized way is not a unique activity. It becomes more of a story we tell ourselves than a reality we may live. But that story can supersede reality, become so comprehensive it is completely different than any life we will ever lead.
And that exhausts me mentally. A bucket list feels to me like a list of things begging my attention yearly… daily even.
“You said you wanted me? Will you complete me? When? When? When?!”
It is a constant reminder of our limited time and resources, which is to say, a constant reminder that we are human. The premise of the movie The Bucket List required one of the characters be a billionaire in order to make all of these things possible for the other character who is a mechanic. Most of us are not billionaires.
It seems like bucket listing has become a pining for the progressively more extravagant and unattainable. We create an idealized future for ourselves that is impractical and makes our current reality seems greatly lacking.
I have always worried about my future. The more I put distant dreams in writing the more I feel I am building reminders into my life of who I will never be. I constantly wrestle with all I won’t become.
As I write this today I have gone white water rafting but I have not been on the cover of GQ (yet). However, I also no longer care about this. It was a superficial goal based on my limited knowledge of a stereotyped ideal. GQ equaled manhood for me. I couldn’t tell you the specific attributes I aspired to back then. Hence why the very concrete and absurd goal.
As for the pouring rain? I honestly don’t even remember. This was clearly something I witnessed in a movie that made my heart long for the kind of love I imagined rain kissing involved.
These list items ended up being youthful indicators of the destinations at which I wanted to arrive. External happenings cueing up how I would feel on the inside. I know now that’s not how it works.
My understanding of love, adventure, and masculinity, while still minimal, are so much more profound now. The way I perceive any particular experience from a distance will always feel different than actually living that experience. The way things look on the horizon is rarely the way they feel in hindsight.
While parts of me remain constant over the years, much changes yearly or even daily. It is an important reminder that goals written in pen do less to help us become our true selves than those written in pencil. A fluid and rewarding life often require a softness with responding to our needs as opposed rigidity. This is something I need a constant reminder of.
My girlfriend and I have this little activity we do. The first trip we took together, we each made a list of 9 places we wanted to go in the world. Then, we shared our lists and looked for any crossovers. Ireland happened to be on both our lists.
So we planned a trip to Ireland.
On our flight home from Ireland, we did the activity again. It’s something we’ve continued to do after each trip we took. This year, the trip we planned got pushed back and I was faced with an uncomfortable realization; a big yearly adventure might not always be possible.
I had defined a large part of our relationship by our ability to travel. The sudden change scared me. While I knew it didn’t mean our relationship had changed at all, it scared me to think how fragile my own mental happiness could be.
I no longer have a list of things to do before I die. I understand there are no guarantees or maps. There are simply goals, dreams, and lists, all of which can change in an instant. As I move through this life, I do not want my efforts of discovery and creation to be based on the requirements of a self I no longer relate to.
Our life is fragile enough as it is. Binding ourselves to a structure hell-bent on deriving worth will never be a recipe for success or fulfillment. Such things are much more attainable with an outlook like that of Robin Williams’ character in Hook;
“To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
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