YouTube performer Connor Franta looks wide-eyed into the fish-eye lens as he declaims his bucket list to all the world. His video is the first to emerge in my YouTube “bucket list” query which wound up yielding 2,360,000 results. While most of the videos are personal to-do lists spoken to the camera, others are sung. And many turn out to be clips, trailers or reflections about “The Bucket List,” the 2007 film with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman dramatizing the final act road-trip of two terminally ill men. Bucket lists have become a big deal.
Bucket Lists: We’re not in Boomerland any more.
Connor’s YouTube soliloquy is staged in his college dorm room, in the space between his bunk bed and messy desk (at which he implores the audience not to stare). For this Millennial, the purpose of a bucket list is to get his s—t together. Regretfully, he tells us, he’s “never had time” to make this list until now. Reading it from his iPhone, Connor jokes that maybe checking off the items will help him decide what to do in life.
Like a lot of bucket lists, Connor’s includes things like “swim with dolphins” and “bungee jumping (#1),” and “see every continent,” activities that promise to widen perspective and cram in intensity. But his view is that of someone looking ahead – quite different from those glancing backward, wanting to make up for what they’ve done – or not done - with their lives.
Natural history of a metaphor
How did people start thinking of “buckets” in relation to death? Probably the most popular theory is that it derived from the 1700’s, from the practice of standing a condemned person atop a bucket prior to tightening of the noose. Kick the bucket out from under the unfortunate, and – voila! Out of death is born a new metaphor.
Two centuries later, the metaphor has been transformed into something more positive – the notion of piling on life satisfactions before said bucket is, inevitably, knocked over.
Combatting Existential Angst
Millennials compiling lists are, obviously, a breed apart from the end-timers.
In “The Bucket List” movie, two terminally ill hospital roommates escape their institutional confinement in favor of completing of a shared bucket list. Eyeing the initial entries made by his roommate Carter Chambers [Morgan Freeman], Edward Cole [Jack Nicholson] calls them “extremely weak,” advocating they instead go out with “some balls – with guns blazing.” And when the pair first set off, our he-boys do indeed go for adrenalin – sky-diving, driving race cars, and going on an African safari. Here and there, the film does touch on the larger issues the pair faces in their near-term deaths – among them, relationships, purpose and religious faith -- but with a light, sentimental touch that doesn’t get much below the surface. Which is perhaps pitch-perfect for a road-trip movie, even one headed for the River Styx.
Mental health counselor Kathleen Taylor, however, sees things differently, and would instead have had the guys come to a screeching halt.
Taylor’s 2012 TED talk, “Rethinking the Bucket List,” confronts the entire premise head on. She argues that what’s wanted towards the end of life is not more adrenalin, but authenticity: what people ought to do is figure out who they want to “be” in life, and not what they want to “do.” In the game of life, says Taylor, Being holds the trump card; determining what to do arises from the knowledge of who we want to be - not the other way around.
She insists that if we would honestly confront each day of our lives as though it were our last, said day “might not consist of jumping out of an airplane or completing a bucket list of adventures.” As for our YouTuber seeking a life purpose? I suppose she would say, Good luck with that.
So what should be in your ”bucket”?
A bucket, by the way, can carry much more besides heart-thumping stunts. Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and assume we already do have a sense of who we want to be. What’s wrong with a rundown of experiences to flesh that out some more? Thankfully, to date I have no scary diagnosis to face down in the short term. But for some of us – I have myself chiefly in mind here – that assurance is not enough. For me, list-making itself is daunting.
Perhaps that’s because the idea of any to-do listis problematic. I am happier at the end of a day making lists of things I’ve gotten done – instead of checking them off against a column, their un-marked neighbors glaring back at me. I have to admit, I probably do get more done on days I refer to a list of must-do’s. So I suppose I could accomplish more with the aid of some kind of personal inventory. A list does make it more real, somehow, especially when the close of life seems way down the road, instead of bearing down on you from just over the hill. Somewhere on an Internet chat I read a post noting that, “every rational person” must have a bucket list.” Oh.
A list does sound arbitrary, though. A friend observed yesterday that things will of course change as we get up in age – at some point it really is too late to get up on a surf board. So if I stop wanting to do some things, it might not just be wimping out. I hope so, because at the age of 67, I’m still not going to put “becoming a pilot” back on my list.
But still, I have a few – no make that a zillion -- questions. What about deadlines? Or priorities - do you shoot for seeing Machu Pichu if it’s #1, never mind that the chance to see the Grand Canyon (#12) is more likely to come sooner? And categories? Should you try to balance your list among adventure dares, personal growth and travel? Post your list on Facebook – or keep it a secret? Tweet as you check things off, or keep your light under your own bushel? Make out a joint list with your loved ones, or make this the one thing you do only for yourself?
For the List-Averse, List-challenged, or otherwise incompetent bucketers? - help is at hand. In their book, Andrew Gall and Matt Webb are there for you, offering Make Your Own Bucket List: How to Design Yours Before You Kick It. And Thomas Nelson offers his ideas in More than a Bucket List: Making Your Dreams, Passions and Faith a Reality. If travel and entertainment is your thing, there are books suggesting bars you should drink at, sites to see in Newburyport, MA, or Ocean City, Maryland – and not-to-be-missed capers to do with your grandkids at the beach before they grow up to be the next version of Millennials? (and start making their own lists). There’s advice out there for baseball nuts who want to round out their fandom experience, plenty of counsel for adrenaline junkies, bucket lists for dieters, and for the libidinous - The Naughty Bucket List: 369 Sexy Dares to do Before You Die, by Kourtney Jason.
When I Googled “bucket list advice,” I got 10,800,000 hits – dwarfing my YouTube results. You can also collect tips from Pinterest, at TheBucketListSociety.com or from challengelistcreator.com. At Sharebuckets.com you can sign up to search the lists of members -- or share your own.
All of this is just scratching the surface. In the weeks ahead we’ll publish bucket lists and comments from contributors and readers, and talk more about what a bucket can hold, for instance:
You ARE your Bucket List: what your list says about you
REALIZE’s tips for better bucket lists
TRENDS in bucket listing
What makes a bucket list really cool – and should you care?
TOGETHERNESS in a Bucket
Is it a good idea -- or dangerous -- for couples to write joint lists?
Can bucket lists be used in couples therapy?
PLUS: Realize is looking to hear what YOU think
To deadline or not? Should a Bucket List be a kind of que sera thing or should there be a discipline to checking them off
As to completion: Accountability or honor system?
Share it with your family, shout it to your Facebook Friends or website. Or keep it to yourself??
And, is there something on your list that your Bucket List that would just die if someone knew?
What else do you readers have to say on the subject?
Pat Hitchens has written about relationships, health & politics -- as well as personal essays -- for print, broadcast and online audiences in a career spanning television, education, business consulting and public relations. Her blog about baby boomers and end-of-life issues is www.ProjectAshes.com