“I am totally putting that on my bucket list!” - basically the worst person
The etymology of the term “Bucket List” can be traced back to a 2007 film featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Basically, a couple of old farts make a list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” By virtually every account, this movie sucked bad.
Why would anybody want to attach his or her mortal legacy to the central concept of a film described by critics as “insipidly innocuous”?
Who cares, anyway? It memed so hard that many people don’t even know why it’s called a bucket list. To be honest, I had no idea this movie existed until I researched the term for this post. No shit. Not even a clue. But, since then, “before you die” has become about as common as turnips.
There has been an explosion of books on the subject. Just search Amazon Books for “before you die”, and there you go. 1,001 Places to Go Before You Die. 1,000 Video Games To Play Before You Die. 1,000 Recordings To Hear, 5 Secrets to Discover…etc., etc.
Is this “before you die” business supposed to create some sense of urgency? Because it doesn’t. In fact, if you really think about it, it probably just generates anxiety. You have to think about dying, first of all. Which is, face it, a huge unknown for every human under the sun. And then many of those titles include the word “Must.” in them. You must...before you die.
Each one of these books does the following:
- Gives the reader an almost immeasurably huge task to accomplish (read 2,001 books).
- Implies that the task must be completed (or else…what? we haven’t lived?)
- Provides only the haziest of time limits for finishing
How are we supposed to know if we even have time to read all those books, play all those games, visit those places? We don’t know how we’ll die, and we sure as hell don’t know when. And, reminded of our own mortality (thank you, editors and publishers of these tomes), we’re probably not inclined to go out and spend our remaining time on this Earth checking off items on a fucking list that someone else made.
Probably the biggest problem with maintaining a bucket list is this: it makes a Hallmark moment out of what is, for most people, an understanding as personal as it is universal. This is the basic wisdom dropped by Mr. Bowles in the top-left corner of this web page (which, in an excellent example of dramatic irony, actually became Brandon Lee’s epitaph after he died at a young age):
Our time here is limited, even though it doesn’t seem that way day-to-day.
Trivializing this in the form of “...Before You Die” books full of trite examples of games, literature, or songs is just a way for marketers to sell us those games, books, and music. They’re doing it the same way they sold us the American Dream in the first place. You must go to school and earn an advanced degree. You must go $250,000 into debt to buy a home. You must sign a 30-year mortgage. You must get married, raise a family, grow wealthy. You must have a lot of stuff. If you don’t, you’re not successful.
You must read these one thousand and one books, or you haven’t lived.
That’s not life! That’s just a bunch of shit people are telling you to do.
A bucket list also isolates you. You have your own list of books you have to read. Movies you have to see. Places you have to go. It’s all about you. Don’t we know better, though? If happiness is all about creating meaning in your life, then what does it mean that you would be so self-centered as to create such a thing as a bucket list?
We are happiest as human beings when we connect with people, help others, and provide value to those we care about. Your bucket list isn’t valuable to anyone. Maybe not even you.
List-making does have some value, though. It’s a great way to set goals visualize even small successes. One problem here is the deadline (pun intended) involved.
Why does it have to be a list of things to do Before You Die? Why not:
- Hip List: Things to Do Before You Get That Hip Replacement
- Get Out of Bed List: Things to Do Before Lunch
- Just Me List: Things to Do When You Have Time to Yourself
- Fun Times List: Fun Things to Do with Your Friends or S.O.
- Bang Your Head Against A Wall List: Things to Do When You’re Bored So You Don’t Kill Anyone
You could have tons of lists, all for different purposes, and they don’t even have to have any time constraints involved! If you really want to add some urgency, don’t resort to arbitrary deadlines like “when you die” or “some day.” Put a date right on the specific item you want to accomplish, and then do it by then. It’s much more satisfying than looking at your stupid list of 300 or so bullshit activities like “climb a mountain” or “eat kangaroo” or “fart into a bent tube and smell the other end” and thinking, “Hey, I’ve got at least 40 years…50 at the outside!” Might as well just watch TV and not sweat it, then.
You can make lists if you want! Just not a “me me me” bucket list. Make a list of things you find satisfying. Maybe it’s a simple list full of generalizations, but whatever—you can make other lists from that. And once you’ve got a few lists down, and you’ve thought about what you really enjoy in life, you just might find that a lot of the items on your various lists are more about other people and the world around you than they are about you, personally. Isn’t that satisfying?
Do you have a bucket list? Go get it and tear it into tiny pieces. Burn it. Throw it out. If you are worried that you’ll forget something on that list, then consider that you probably don’t feel too terribly Before-I-Die passionate about those items anyway. It might have seemed like a neat idea at the time, but whether you meant to or not, you wrote the thing because someone made a superficial, manipulative, and just plain terrible movie. And now people are writing superficial, manipulative, and terrible books in the same vein.
Your bucket list? It’s as stupid as those stupid books.
EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to Jack for pointing out that I’ve been mis-attributing the quote on my site to Brandon Lee for years now. This is corrected now and forever!