Having done no real research into the origin of the phrase ‘Bucket List,’ I will simply proclaim with confidence that the idea of cataloging ones cravings pertaining to travel and experience went mainstream with the eponymous 2007 movie co-starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I remember watching the film around the time it came out, and enjoying it in the feel-good, mindlessly entertained manner intended (though with perhaps a deeper message overtly delivered).
In subsequent years, the phrase began to permeate the common lexicon and inundate the imaginations of millions of would-be travelers and experiencers. Most everyone, it seems, has a bucket list these days, and is happy to share that fact in casual conversation. Whether there is an actual bulleted list that lives on the back pages of mostly blank journals, or ideas that simply exist in the universe of intentions, its presence is regularly mentioned though rarely acted upon. Daring to dream, but not bothering to do.
As you may have ascertained from the title of this post, I’m not a big fan of the expression, or the expression of it. I don’t hate it in a serious manner, of course. More like a mildly perturbed one as with any time I hear someone sharing some trite cliché. A little cringe-worthy, it is. There are two reasons for the trifling revulsion, both of them, I’m sure, topics touched on at other points on this blog. The first one is the distance between words and actions; and the second has to do with consumeristic collection of events as compared to appreciation of authentic experience.
One of my most difficult struggles in life repeatedly resurfaces in activity-planning conversations with others. People talk. Sometimes they believe themselves, sometimes they simply say what they think others want to hear. They make plans on the premise that they might truly like to do whatever it is they say they’re going to do. They want to be the person that would get up in the morning committed to crafting a gratifying lifestyle. However, those plans are often made with the (perhaps subconscious) knowledge that when the time comes there’s little to no chance of said plan coming to fruition. As with dieting, exercise, and the cessation of self-destructive behaviors, many people like to imagine an idealized existence of motivation and fulfillment. In reality, however, the fridge beckons irresistibly, cigarettes and cocktails prove too inviting, and the couch feels way too comfortable come Saturday morning.
Having a bucket list is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions or even dreaming of winning the lottery. All of these things are benign in practice, and it’s often fun to envision a fortuitous restructuring of our personal circumstances. The only harm in resolutions and bucket lists is imagining that any of these things are truly going to happen without dedication and effort. And if a person isn’t willing to put either into the manifestation of their goals, there’s about as much chance of them happening as picking the Powerball.
This pattern, that of talk without action, blab without intention, the jib flapping and tongue wagging and word vomiting, only partially represent the overwhelmingly misdirected coopting of the bucket list ideal. There is also the issue of people doing things solely to say they did them. The accumulation of packaged adventures. The checking of the box, and buying of the t-shirt, and flaunting of the instantly posted photos. It is always mildly depressing to hear a rafting client exclaim: “I can’t wait to check this one off,” as we prepare to go down the river—the experience already over before it begins. To mark things off a list generally signifies getting them done and over with so that we can move on with our lives, little appreciation given to the chores that need crossing out. There is only a slim chance of truly living in the moment given such an attitude, where phone calls and photos are mentally making people jealous (adding items to their own bucket lists) even before the day’s journey commences.
It is even more disheartening, though more rule than exception these days, to witness individuals entirely consumed with their technologies rather than in physical experience. Obsessed with capturing proof for public reference. And surely this is all too familiar to all of us, expedited experiences forgotten in the moment only to live on in their documentation. As I heard it recently in a Ted talk from Argentina: ‘Como resultado, empezamos a vivir la vida para mostrarla, no para disfrutarla…’ [As a result, we began to live life to show it off, not to enjoy it…] And yes, it is fun to share our lives with others (as demonstrated on these pages), but it is even more imperative to live it for ourselves.
As such, the bucket list—if we are to define it as things you really want to experience/achieve before you die—should be getting shorter all the time, and each bullet on it best be meaningful. Which seems to be the problem with most people’s use of the phrase. To hear the items come up, the lists seem never-ending and constantly expanding—and based primarily on what other people are doing or have done. The things on it are things people imagine other people looking at photos of them doing, and judging them accordingly as intrepid adventurers and the protagonists of amazing lives. I realize I’m being both dramatic and literal here, but a real bucket list should be things you really want to do, and things you actually can do—and above all there should exist deeply developed reasons corresponding to each yearning. It should be personalized and prioritized and based entirely on individual values and goals rather than insatiable status quo/social media trends. You should have a plan to achieve each item, instead of hoping a chance appears in some far off future. If you want it, you will make it happen.
And if you don’t really want to put in the work—well, just pass me a bucket next time you decide to mention that list. Kinda makes me want to puke.
*Photos from various locations in Argentina 2016