Against bucket lists
Why the New Year's resolution isn't as bad as you think
I am not normally one to call myself superstitious, but my reflections have been making me suspicious as I consider that 2013 was perhaps the crappiest — for lack of a more appropriate term — year of my life to date.
As I float down from the invigorating high that comes from turning to a fresh January calendar page, I contemplate the elephant in the room known as New Year’s resolutions. There’s the usual: taking care of my body, carving time in my days to spend with people I often forget. I always vow to procrastinate less, but given the irony of starting my resolutions on Jan. 22, I think it might be best if I scrap that draft before it’s started. And another year takes root resolution-less.
As I sit on this tangent of resolutions, I wonder about their second cousin: the bucket list. The prospect of crafting the perfect bucket list is certainly more tantalizing than making the stogy set of resolutions the devil on my shoulder knows will never materialize.
The perfect bucket recipe is one-part dangerous, one-part going against your grain and infinite parts invigorating and satisfying. Its purpose is to make one feel fulfilled upon its completion and highlight the accomplishments of certain milestones — or even let one’s inner-badass out to play.
You will get no argument from me that it is satisfying to paint the town red, or at least throw some color on the daily mundane palette that too often resembles the blasé shade of Clemons’ walls. But I wonder whether this hyped-up goal-setting process actually has adverse effects.
One of my greatest fears in life is relinquishing myself to the power of time; suddenly becoming 30, 40, 50 or 80 and being caught off guard by that reality. I always want my life to keep pace, rather than becoming static and letting time overrun me and leave me winded and behind. This deep-seeded fear makes me skeptical of bucket lists. Do they leave people ignorant of the now by inducing tunnel vision toward the lure of the bigger and better? Are bucket lists just a friendlier version of the rather unhealthy eye-on-the-prize mentality of so many Americans? I don’t know about you, but I’m not so keen on the racehorse life.
It’s morbid, in some sense. If I recall correctly, completing one of these trailing task lists comes with the anti-climactic finish known as “kicking the bucket.” Perhaps, in some spiritual sense, a bucket list can help one find peace in death, giving confirmation of a life well-lived. But maybe the means are greater than the ends. There is simply too much joy to process in any given day, provided that you look for it. If you find yourself coming up dry in this joy-search, remember the power of waking up, the power of good company, the power of just having time to employ for your living. On the whole, probably about three percent of life is actually spent skydiving, seeing every continent or meeting Oprah. Bucket-listing — what I am calling the process of fulfilling one’s bucket list — will always be a marginal fraction of your time.
From this angle, a bucket list seems like a one-way ticket to dissatisfaction. It’s a cordial invitation to Father Time, asking him to get the leg-up on you. These goals feel long-term, but all things considered, they are very, very, short-term.
As products of the BuzzFeed generation, lists entice us. They feel comfortable and compact, accessible and maybe even motivating. But lists are also finite. I’m going to run with the assumption most folks compile items in a list format when they have intentions of completing the tasks. So lists, by nature, are actually limiting.
All of this is not to say I do not recognize some value in bucket lists or New Year’s resolutions. I certainly encourage people to make an excuse for stepping out of what is comfortable. Settling in is just what Old Man Time wants us to do in order for it to lap us in the rat race competition we call “living.”
But they are not the end all, be all. Thinking big in terms of the next 80 years is fine, but thinking about the next 12 hours or maybe the next 20 minutes is equally valuable and certainly more relevant. So perhaps I will get back to the drawing board on those resolutions and let them guide my daily ruminations. I’ll let the bucket list — well, kick the bucket.
_Katherine’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. _