The Bucket List: Is it really all it’s hyped up to be or should we kick the bucket down the road?


Diane Phillips


Bucket Lists interest me. I also feel threatened by them or maybe intimidated is a better word because I don’t really have a full bucket list and that makes me think I must be a pretty boring person.

Is it only exciting people who want to climb Mt. Everest, go hot air ballooning sipping champagne and making the kind of titillating conversation that sounds like it leapt straight out of a black and white movie?

Is it only exciting people who want to dive in the Galapagos or sky dive solo over the River Seine? Do lots of people really want to do those things?

Is there something wrong or lacking in me that if I had a bucket list it would contain things like sleeping late on a Sunday or eating gluten-free banana pancakes without guilt or having a chocolate-covered strawberry whenever I wanted?

The truth is if I had a bucket, the only somewhat risky thing I consistently want to put in it is to give a TED Talk. TED Talks, for those who are not as into them as I am, are live performances of someone talking. When those live performances are recorded and available online they can be heard by anyone who wants to know someone’s else’s thoughts.

TED Talks become publicly aired gems of wisdom, often told with self-deprecating humour and always with total, soul-bearing honesty. They could be about something as seemingly personal as how you raise a child or as global as how to survive climate change. What they have in common, aside from the ordinary people who share their thoughts and expose themselves to strangers they will never meet, is that the message, or the moral, they deliver never feels like medicine. You leave listening to a TED Talk feeling enriched and carrying a thought which is like that refrain you can’t stop singing or repeating in your head.

But I digress. This is about bucket lists. I just wanted to explain that having a TED Talk top my otherwise nearly empty bucket is why I started thinking about bucket lists in the first place and wondering whether not having one made me boring. And, if I feel that way, how many other people share that feeling?

Do bucket lists make us feel less valuable if we don’t want to climb a mountain or dive in the South Pacific? And what is the difference between a bucket list and a series of goals? The subject should not have weighed so heavily on my mind, but it did and it does so I did what I always do when something just won’t go away. I worried it ‘til I resolved it.

There is some evidence of bucket lists existing on rare occasions in literature a long time ago, but the concept only gained popularity when the movie by the same name came out in 2007. Remember that date. It will be important later.

The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, traced the shenanigans of two men both hospitalized with terminal cancer and sharing a semi-private room in a hospital.

Nicholson played the part of a rich white man who had never found happiness despite a series of fast cars and wives and more money than he would be able to spend in the time left. Morgan Freeman played a blue collar car mechanic, an upstanding man who had worked hard all his life, was happily married and had devoted every spare moment and dollar to being the perfect husband and father.

All they had in common was impending death. As they started talking in the room they shared in the hospital Nicholson owned, they began comparing the fantasies of what each one wanted to do before they kicked the bucket.

Billionaire Nicholson summons his private plane and the two men, by now comrades in imagination and burgeoning best friends, set off on their end-of-life series of adventures. Freeman finally gets to drive a Ferrari. They ride motorcycles on a winding and dangerous road.

Rotten Tomatoes (my most trusted movie review site) calls the movie schmaltzy. Okay, it took some poetic licence, like why would Nicholson be in a semi-private room if he owned the hospital? Rotten Tomatoes and I parted ways on this one, I thought the movie was really funny and Ioved the concept of a bucket list – until I realized years later it was haunting me that I could not create one.

I’ve given birth to two daughters, have two beautiful granddaughters, but for the life of me, I could not give life to a bucket list. What was wrong with me?

So I took that guilt, explored and massaged it. First, I figured, if the world got along without bucket lists for thousands of years until Nicholson and Freeman ended up facing death, maybe bucket lists were just a passing phenomenon.

And maybe bucket lists skyrocketed to prominence and became part of everyone’s vernacular because 2007 was a very prosperous year. People had money, money meant dreams and fantasies could come true. Bucket lists filled with extreme adventure and exotic exploration are, after all, for those who believe they can afford it now or will be able to afford it later.

Our ancestors did not have bucket lists. They had realistic goals. They were just trying to hunt and forage and feed. They were not part of a privileged class who took dreams like beaching in Bora Bora or riding rescue elephants in Thailand for granted. Survival goals trump bucket lists any day.

The other thing I wondered about was the year. Suppose the movie had come out after September 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Bros. and the burst of the housing bubble that evolved into a full-out global recession. Suppose it had come out when people were losing their homes to foreclosure because banks had granted mortgages to those who under normal circumstances could never afford the payments like the pizza delivery man who got the half million dollar mortgage and not long after lost his home and every penny he had saved his whole life?

Maybe the movie would not have had the same effect, sweeping the world up into its arms persuading all of us that we should have a list of things we wanted to experience before we kicked the bucket.

Here is what I concluded. Goals will always matter. Whether you want to load them into a bucket or not is a personal decision. If you have a bucket list, that is great and I hope you get to climb every mountain on your list. Just please don’t make those of us who can’t get our list together feel guilty. We may be folks to whom thinking and relationships and a full moon are just as important as driving a motorcycle around a dangerous and winding bend.

Maybe, just maybe, we live a little part of our list every day.


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