The Problem with Bucket Lists

According to the Urban Dictionary, a bucket list is a list of things to do before you die. It comes from the phrase “kick the bucket.”

While it’s great that Americans are facing up to our own mortality, it’s kind of sad that we’re often doing it in the usual consumerist way – racing to cram in and “consume” the maximum experiences or stuff before the fateful day. Perhaps we’re under the delusion that the person who dies having ingested the most cash or trophy objects somehow “wins” - or that the way to tell if you’re winning at the life game is checking items off the list as quickly as possible.

So what’s wrong with this? Well, for starters it just reeks of entitlement and privilege. Most lists are made by people whose dreams don’t include things like: “find a way to pay for my wife’s surgery” or “find some food and a place to sleep for my kids tonight.”

Higher goals also don’t often make our bucket lists. Most lists focus on the tangible and purchasable: “a condo in Hawaii” or “a week in Singapore” rather than “deep connection with people I love” or “making peace” or “hugging my grandchild more often.” Spiritual goals seem to have disappeared from “things to do” lists for way too many people, in sharp contrast to previous generations of whatever cultural lineage. Philosophers and wise people of many world traditions would undoubtedly be saddened by how shallow and self-obsessed many modern people have become.

And do the bucket lists really work as a way to stave off the fear of death? Those who work closely with dying people tell us that what’s really important at the end of life isn’t “I wish I’d had front row seats at the Lakers’ game” or “I never got to drink espresso at a cafe in Paris.” Instead, people’s regrets include far simpler things like “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard,” “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends” or “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.”

For ecopsychologists and environmentalists, the trophy travel items on our bucket lists are especially disturbing. Too often we ignore or desecrate the places, people, animals, plants, waters and ecosystems where we actually live and then “escape” to other peoples’ lands for our “reward” vacations, oblivious to the effects of our fossil fueled travel on the atmosphere, our luxury hotel on the land or our pina coladas on the culture of our destination. Some people who live in tourist destinations are beginning to feel that the dollars they make from the trophy-hunting tourists aren’t worth the devastation to their homeplaces.

So what’s on your list of things that are important for you to experience during this “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver describes it. Mine now includes loving and being grateful for all that is around me right here, right now – and doing what I can to be helpful to others. So I may not make it to Tahiti and I imagine the Tahitians will be just as happy without me.

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