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What's Wrong With Your Bucket List

If it's all about skydiving and swimming with sharks, you may be missing a bigger opportunity

By Erica Brown, Ph.D. | June 13, 2013
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Erica Brown, Ph.D., is the author of eight books, including Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death (Simon and Schuster, 2013) and is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Learn more at her website.

After my 16-year-old son had a particularly fun experience recently, he told me, "Now I can cross that off my bucket list."

"You're 16, and you already have a bucket list?"

"No," he said, "but I cross off things in my mind once I do them. They would be the kind of things I would put on a list if I had one."
 
This convoluted thinking intrigued me. My son's list was not made up of items to check off before he dies, but an evolving account of the experiences he thinks he should have as he lives.

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Still, he, too, had bought into the popular mindset that a bucket list is a roster of exciting, often hazardous activities that are seen as constituting a complete life. The idea of the bucket list comes from the expression to kick the bucket. If you are going to kick the bucket, the thinking goes, you ought to fill it with a few great experiences first.

The term gained wide popularity after the 2007 Rob Reiner film of the same name, which starred Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as terminally ill men taking a road trip together as a way of saying a smashing goodbye to life.

It is somewhat easier to take incredible risks when there is little to lose. But what's to be gained? For one, the right to say you're not too old to dare greatly, to paraphrase the famous 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt. And dare greatly people do while fulfilling their bucket lists. At the website bucketlist.org, you can create your own list of aspirational antics and compare your goals to those of others. The site claims almost 50,000 participants with nearly 900,000 cumulative goals.

That's a lot to do. Better get started quickly.
 
Popular goals on the site include skydiving — you knew that was coming — swimming with sharks and experiencing zero gravity. I almost got the feeling that attempting some of these activities might actually precipitate death, which would most certainly compromise the actualization of any other goals on one's list.
 
And as you can imagine, journeys to great global destinations comprise a number of other slots: think Stonehenge, the Equator, the Sistine Chapel, the Galapagos and others. Such dreams are the basis of the best-selling book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, which would be a pretty depressing title if you've got only a few months to live. I wish the author had picked a less ambitious number, like 11. I might have even bought a second volume.
 
(MORE: Aging as a Spiritual Practice)

On the other hand, some popular goals on the bucket-list site — like kissing passionately in the rain (shared by 944 users), giving blood (581) and laughing until you cry (475) — just seem too banal to merit a place. The same goes for learning CPR or eating a slice of Spam. Really? Spam? You can't do better than that, people? Where is your imagination?
 
The Goals That Really Matter

I struggle with society's understanding of the bucket list. It seems to me that if we are going to check off anything, it ought to be experiences that makes life worth living before our time runs out. So I'd suggest a different type of list, one with emotional, spiritual or intellectual goals that can bring depth, breadth and heft to our lives in the time we have left. How many of us can say that we have really prayed, spent meditative time in wonder or told a friend just how much he or she has meant to us? What about writing your life story, going to a silent retreat or reconciling with a sibling? Sure, you can get a high from knowing that at age 87 you jumped out of a plane with a parachute and a prayer, but that is not going to fix a broken relationship with an estranged son.
 
Spiritual goals are demanding. They cannot be accomplished merely by arriving somewhere or doing something dangerous just long enough for a photo. Eating bull testicles or driving an Aston Martin makes for a great Facebook post, but if you add up all the time actually spent in those activities, you may have just five minutes of video, barely enough for a YouTube entry.
 
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Creating a bucket list is supposed to upend our fear of dying. But what about our fear of never having lived? If we substituted the adjective "meaningful" for "thrilling" on our lists, how would it change our perception of what we're supposed to do with our remaining years on this planet? Even if you believe in an afterlife, you will not be repeating this life. Every day is a chance to squeeze a little bit more out of a blessed existence. Maybe we can offer ourselves, in the place of a few thrills, a series of emotional epiphanies that add up to a life we can look back on with pride.
 
Not everyone envisions a full bucket, of course. "The past is a bucket of ashes," wrote the poet Carl Sandburg, "so live not in your yesterdays, nor just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Keep moving and forget the post-mortems."

Perhaps a looming bucket of ashes can be redeemed with a bucket full of hope and purpose. Maybe that's the value of a different type of bucket list. For the next few minutes, write a list of 10 activities and experiences that would reflect on your own notions of friendship, marriage, parenting, faith and community. Then ask yourself: What's stopping me from pursuing those goals right now?
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