Kicking the bucket list: Is there anything I really need to do before I die?

Although I’ve been close to a fair bit of death, disease, and decay in recent years, I have not felt explicitly connected to the notion of a bucket list. This is probably unfortunate since the practice of compiling “a list of things one wants to do before dying” is a potentially helpful exercise. Of course, many items on stereotypical bucket lists focus on consumption-laden versions of travel, adventure, and excitement: going on an African safari, skydiving, attending a Super Bowl game, swimming with dolphins, or meeting Oprah. But bucket lists are obviously highly individual, and some are centered more on creativity and personal growth, say, learning to play the harmonica, taking a drawing class, making a piece of clothing for oneself, or cooking with a professional chef.

At some point in what we euphemistically refer to as “middle age,” I began taking my time commitments much more seriously. Increasingly, I thought of the phrase “spending my time”literally, and could feel, quite distinctly, that my coin purse was becoming lighter. But I didn’t then set out to stop “wasting” time. To the contrary, some of the activities I began to devote more time to were, precisely, the “unproductive” ones: long walks in the woods, morning sessions of tooting on my trumpet, expanded meditations, and reading books that I love. In general, my focus has become less on the particular nature of the activities than on the level of intentionality I put into them. It is probably because of this “how-rather-than-what” emphasis that I had overlooked the “bucket list” given its frequent association to flashy achievements.

One danger of the bucket list is that it can encourage an obsession with more and more acquisition and attainment, even if this is transformed into a desire to collect experiences rather than things. Approaching activities from that orientation seems doomed to failure since acquisition as such never creates lasting contentment or satisfaction. One crosses off one’s list the trip to Paris, the hike of the Colorado trail, and the visit to Dollywood only to discover that it brings no lasting contentment or peace. If the bucket list is experienced as an expression of lack, emptiness or need, a checklist of what one thinks one needs in order to feel whole, than it’s mainly an exercise in distracting oneself from death. Consulting a bucket list in this way threatens to become just another way of remaining unconsciously busy under the guise of “living life to its fullest.”

But as crass as the term “bucket list” may sound, I do think that it’s got spiritual potential for the simple reasons that giving thought to how we wish to spend our remaining time has got to be a step in the right direction. To sit down and make a bucket list, I have got to, at some level, at least entertain the idea that I will not live forever. When approached in this spirit, it does seem like a bucket list can serve as an expression of one’s joyful effort to celebrate the experiences and sensations of this body and this planet. Of course, there’s no reason that bucket list items might not focus on connection and relationships, with other people, animals, with nature, or even with spirituality itself, but this would probably not count as anything most people would recognize as a bucket list.

And I suppose that this is why, when push comes to shove, I’m not very deeply attracted to the notion of a bucket list. My greatest longing is not to have or do this, that, or the other, but to become so fully and completely present in each mundane moment that it no longer even makes sense for me to wonder if I might be leaving something undone. If there is any one thing I truly want it is to exist in such a way that one present moment flows so effortlessly into the next that there is no longer any place for past or future. And certainly no need for any list to guide me on my way.

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