When Your Bucket List Goes Belly Up
You can’t always get what you want, especially as the pandemic rewrites our dreams
I have a friend in her late 50s who was thrilled to see her son leave for a college semester in Italy this January. Not only would it give him the opportunity to explore a gorgeous country and learn the language — heck, it would give her the chance to visit him in Milan and then explore Lake Como, a bucket list destination for her, a person who had never been to Europe.
She imagined strolling past grand buildings, painted ochre and burnt umber, and zipping around on a boat. No worries if she didn’t bump into George Clooney. It would be heavenly. She booked flights and hotels and began counting down to the start of her trip.
You know where this is going, right? Her son came back home soon after his arrival in Italy due to the coronavirus outbreak in Northern Italy, and her trip was cancelled.
Surely, there are much, much more tragic outcomes due to the virus’ spread, and my friend and her son were lucky not to get sick.
But it does shine a light on what it's like to watch your lovingly tended bucket list dreams go down the drain.
When the Bucket List Crashes and Burns
I had a similar experience just before the pandemic kicked in. For decades, I’d wanted to see the Northern Lights; to be bundled up under an inky sky, watching green and purple waves wash over the heavens.
Also for decades, there were reasons why my husband and I couldn’t go. Money. Work. Little kids. Bigger kids. Yadda yadda.
It was beautiful but: No. Northern. Lights.
But this year, off we went to Iceland, where — after so much planning and anticipation — we crossed Thingvellir National Park’s silvery snow drifts to reach a zone of zero light pollution at the optimal time. The sky was an undiscernible shade of either deep blue or black. The Milky Way emerged. Then a shooting star…and another. My husband and I held hands and held our breath, waiting for the magic to unfold.
And…we didn’t see a damn thing. It was beautiful but: No. Northern. Lights. We were thousands of miles from home and thousands of dollars were spent, and with a heavy heart, I heard The Rolling Stones singing "You can't always get what you want" in my head. I took it personally, as if the Fates had giggled fiendishly as they stymied my mission.
Dealing With the Disappointment
How did this Bucket List-itis become such a burden? Let’s consider the cultural context.
“Boomers were born into a time when the country was wealthy and optimistic, developing products that decreased work and enhanced enjoyment,” says Peter Cashorali, a Pasadena, Calif.-based therapist who supports clients in times of change. “Our culture's mythology says in part, ‘I'm supposed to be happy.’”
Now, layer on the time-is-running-out pressure of bucket lists, which basically dictate that since death is looming, we should have some high-flying experiences in what poet Mary Oliver called our “one wild and precious life.”
Consider Jeff, 62, a successful entrepreneur who has been admittedly hellbent on giving a SXSW (South by Southwest) presentation in his home state of Texas. This March, he was set to check off that box by taking the stage in Austin at the huge summit.
“It’s the kind of thing I’d tell the grandkids about. Major bragging rights,” he says. Again, his plans were foiled by the COVID-19 situation. “I felt completely defeated. I worked so hard to nail this," Jeff notes.
When our plans don’t materialize, says Cashorali, “part of the blow is a confrontation with the fact that the universe isn't fair. Our beliefs about this — say, that I will be kept safe from harm or that nothing will be sent my way that I can't handle — might never have been examined consciously, and failure to achieve something on the list might make them resonate.”
He adds: “We’re not just disappointed, but maybe scared of what’s ahead. But not achieving your goal could free you up to form more of a relationship with your mortality."
For Cashorali personally, that means some mindfulness about those scared feelings in the pit of his stomach. “I breathe directly into and then out from that distressed center of experience. I name it to myself, whether anxiety or dread or fear of death. And I stay there with it, not avoiding or repressing or distracting but also not feeding it with thoughts or images,” he says.
Learning From Losing
Beyond accepting the unfairness of life (and death), there’s another angle to consider. Reframing the disappointment can play a powerful role in regrouping.
Jennifer Kornreich, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Huntington, N.Y., says, “The life review, an important concept in psychology, plays a role in successful aging. For middle-aged and older people, finding satisfaction in your life’s course isn’t about ticking every wish off a bucket list. It’s more about finding coherence and meaning when you look at how you’ve lived, even if you’ve been unhappy at times.”
"Bucket list adventures are definitely meaningful, but they don't determine your overall life satisfaction."
She continues,:“It’s inevitable for all of us to have regrets about some of our choices or missed opportunities. But in a life review, it’s much easier to make peace with something like never having climbed Mount Everest than feeling as if you haven’t tapped your full potential or as if you have been a harmful parent. Bucket list adventures are definitely meaningful, but they don’t determine your overall life satisfaction.”
Adam, 63, a public defender in New Jersey, can relate. A few years ago, he decided to spring for tickets to see his teenage hero, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, in concert.
“Roger’s music shaped my outlook on life. I’d never seen him live, and given his age and mine, I felt this was the moment,” Adam says. “The tickets were ridiculously expensive, even for my nosebleed seats, but I was still really pumped. My poor coworkers heard about the upcoming concert every single day.”
What Adam hoped would be a transformative evening was something much less. “Roger was just a blip on the stage, and the guy in front of me got really drunk. Security ejected him halfway through the show, but the night was still ruined,” he recalls. “I was honestly depressed for a while after, but then realized his music was a gift that had been with me my whole life. So what if the concert was bad? It hardly mattered.”
Bucket Lists in the Age of Lockdowns
For those of us who still cling to the idea of achieving far-flung travels (Northern Lights, I’m looking at you!) or other goals that seem impossible right now, Kornreich has some last words.
“Remember that bucket-list items are idealized and don’t always take real-life circumstances into account,” she says. “There may be vicarious ways to achieve your bucket list goals. If climbing Machu Picchu can’t happen, immersing yourself in books and bingeing on documentaries about it may still be deeply satisfying.”
At this moment, when we are all hunkering down and hoping for a return to normalcy, this kind of virtual bucket-listing may be the best and perhaps only path forward.