THE IDEA OF composing a list of things you’d like to do before shuffling off this mortal coil (as Shakespeare put it) or “kicking the bucket” (as it’s better known in our more advanced civilization) is not new. But with the popularity of The Bucket List, starring those two grand old war-horses Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, the tradition has been christened with a new luster. For a while, anyway.
In case you’re wondering about the actual bucket and how kicking it came to be a euphemism for dying, alas, there is no definitive answer: lots of far-fetched theories, but no agreement among wordsmiths. It is not the gentlest of comparisons, like “passing on” or “going to your reward.”
I favor the phrase used by a cheery middle-aged Utah woman who, years ago, ran a radio program for 15 minutes every morning. She started by singing a hymn to start everyone’s day off right, then commented on the weather, offered a recipe, and concluded by listing anyone who had died while you were asleep. Her term for “died” was “shot on over.” “Mary Langston shot on over last night, age 96; the funeral will be Saturday at 2 p.m. I’m going to share one of her favorite recipes with you right now; you could make up a batch and take it along for after-service refreshments.”
In our day, the bucket list focuses on what pleasures you want to experience before you shoot on over, in case the advance reviews about heaven turn out to be exaggerated.
Jack and Morgan’s bucket list is full of macho stuff: leaping out of airplanes, shooting around race tracks in tight-fitting cars, viewing Mt. Everest up close and personal, pleasuring women as young and as patient as their own grand-daughters. But in general, tradition does not decree that one’s list drip with machismo, only with anticipation of a beautiful experience.
Is making a bucket list worth your time? There are plenty of other lists advising us on how best to tidy our lives before shooting on over, lists having to do with advance directives, wills, legacies, and disposition of earthly treasures (including the 2000 issues of Readers Digest under your bed, and your first prom dress). There are lists to help you choose the right nursing home for your last round-up; there is a list of important books you simply must read before that last “put out the light” is spoken. On my bookshelf there is even a 927-page tome titled 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
Bucket lists, by contrast, aren’t about what you need to do, but what you really, really want to do. Bucket lists are about doing something special in your own eyes, something you dreamed about since you were a kid, or something your neighbors did that you have envied ever after. You can load up your bucket with small things as well as large, from walking the Appalachian Trail to acquiring a pashmina collection.
And of course there is a website for those mulling these lists over—and the mullers are not oldsters at all, prepping for their last hurrah, but, as nearly as I can gather, younger people looking forward to colorful lives, desirous of filling several buckets.
I was surprised and delighted to learn which are the most popular dreams on this group’s list. Just a few notches from the top of the list we read: Get a tattoo. Really? My response is: if you want a tattoo, get it, check it off the list, and keep going.
Number One—the wish or dream listed by more than 2000 people on the Bucket site—was “see the Northern Lights.” Personally, I’ve only seen a multi-screen slide show of the Northern Lights, but on the basis of that alone, I agree with those 2000 bucketeers.
I think a thoughtfully composed bucket list is a good thing. To begin with, it helps us remember that life can be beautiful—that it probably needs to be beautiful every so often so that we don’t become certified grouches, nose-to-the-grindstone dullards. And lest you think making a bucket list is something to postpone until your hair turns grey or vanishes altogether, think again. Let me assure you that a pleasure which might be entirely do-able for you right now could be close to impossible by the next leap year.
Shortly before retirement, I joined a colleague and a dozen students on a summer-long art and architecture tour of Italy. In Florence, where we headquartered, I walked miles and miles over cobblestoned streets and climbed marble staircases in some of the greatest art museums in the world. I walked up the long steep hill in the middle of San Gimignano, an ancient town with unflagging charm. What if I had waited to do that? It wouldn’t have happened. Today, walking out to the mailbox can sometimes be a challenge.
Some people can tell you right away what’s in their bucket. One student, when asked, replied: “I want to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower!” He knew his own mind, even if he didn’t know the Eiffel Tower. (The top three-fourths of the Tower are definitely not climbable.) But many of us would be at a loss to name a single item for a personal bucket list. Why is that?
Sadly, many of us give up dreaming early in life. We dream about Romeo, but when he doesn’t show up, we settle for Ralph. At 18, we look forward to a career that takes us around the world, doing exciting things never done before by anyone listed on our genealogy sheets.
But by 25, we’re busy surviving, and by 35, our biggest dreams are of Disneyland or Branson—or an extra bathroom. We become cynical about dreams. Sometimes we get jaded. We have seen it all—on TV, of course, or on film. We’ve seen Star Treks and the War of the Worlds, great cities consumed by giant cockroaches, we’ve seen men walk on the actual moon. We’ve watched young couples fall in love in Paris, and old couples chug their way upriver to torpedo a German ship. After years of our seeing fiction, fact, and fantasy in full color on our TV screens, if our fairy godmothers did show up, what would we ask for? A paid-up mortgage, guaranteed health care, adoring grandkids? All very sensible goals, yes. But a dream for our bucket list? What would that be?
About 25 years ago, a friend’s brother told his wife that he felt the joy and fun had gone out of his life. He loved her and his children, but everything else just felt blah, boring. He was president of a small company, business was going well, but it all seemed routine. His wife said that what they needed to do was set some new goals. And I guess they did. But I’ve often thought since then that what Richard needed was a new dream, rather than another oh-so-sensible goal.
So what about this claim that we have seen such wonders and fantasies on media that there is little in the tangible world to merit being put on a bucket list? Are we really so jaded? Perhaps if we keep open to the possibility of being enchanted, we can side-step the dangers of being blasé.
When visiting Costa Rica, I enjoyed many impressive sights—two oceans, haze-bedecked mountaintops, tumbling waterfalls, and a volcanic mountain still smoking at unannounced intervals. One morning, we went to a farm where butterflies are raised from cocoons and shipped around the globe. Some stayed at the farm. They swarmed about us, fearless and friendly and all colors of the rainbow. One Blue Morpho landed on my red shirt, and amused herself amiably for at least five minutes while I tried not to disturb her by breathing, reveling in her presence. Of all that we saw and experienced in Costa Rica, my five minutes with that Blue Morpho was an unexpected bucket list experience, as vivid now as it was then.
A bucket list is not just a rich person’s option. But having such a list does indicate that we want richness in our lives, and that we will bring passion and joy to match those big things. Creating a bucket list challenges us to keep our dreams alive, to stay receptive, eager, and alert.
Other people set goals for us: parents, religious leaders, prophets ancient and modern, teachers, schools and colleges, companies we work for, and groups we belong to, from Boy Scouts to the Democratic Party. Mundane goals and majestic goals. But we need to guard our dreams as our own, whether we’re young or old.
Busy researchers recently extracted interesting information about the difference between young and old as far as personal pleasures are concerned. For the young, big events weigh heavily, apparently because they establish personal identities for the individual. “Craig has visited every LDS temple in Central and South America.” “Jill studied French cuisine at the Cordon Bleu.” “Eric saw the Northern Lights and had some gorgeous photos published in Sunsets and Stars.”
By contrast, says the data, old people find ordinary experience more central to their sense of self, and more satisfying. A beautiful rose garden they’ve nurtured, a baby quilt they’ve made for a grandchild, a rare bird they’ve added to the Lifetime Bird List—these often outweigh the cruises, the pyramids, the accolades and public recognition. Instead of being famous, these achievements are particularly personal.
I wondered about the implications of these findings. Perhaps when we are young, we build our identity by being able to say, “This big thing happened to me, so I’m special!” or “I’m one of the rare adventurers who have climbed to the top of this pyramid.” Ordinary me was lifted above the masses by being connected with this large, unusual reality (or at least by this large, shocking tattoo on my censored). In later years, though, perhaps I give everyday things significance by making them part of my story. They are special because of my investment in them, rather than my being special because of their uniqueness.
Mormons live in a subculture full of specific guidelines, expectations, and restrictions. I sometimes wonder if the impulse to go on big adventures wanes more quickly among us than in less prescriptive societies. In Zion, for elders male and female, many duties remain, but perhaps some dreams are too long deferred.