Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crossing off a "Bucket List"

"Getting what you thought you wanted has never brought you lasting happiness. Instead, use the time, attention and energy to realize the fullness that is ever present and all around you." - Wu Hsin

After presenting a training on putting the laughter back into aging, I was approached by a woman who, with a simple comment, planted a great seed. With a slight touch of urgency, she said, “We need to get rid of the bucket list; we really messed up with that.” I immediately sensed a blog in the making as both the irony and absurdity of a bucket list struck me at once. I'm not sure that what follows is exactly what she had in mind, but that's the great thing about planting random seeds, you never know what they're going to grow.

The origin of the phrase "the bucket list "comes from our modern day version of myth-making, Hollywood movies. Full disclosure, I watched, and somewhat enjoyed, the movie. In the movie, two aging men, both diagnosed with cancer, decide to do all of the things they have always wanted to do before kicking the bucket. Roger Ebert’s take on it was: "The Bucket List is a movie about two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible."

Despite this less than glowing review, the movie struck a chord with many folks who, with or without a terminal illness, decided they too needed to create their lists of things to do before they die.

Before heading into the meat of this topic, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on just where the "kick the bucket" phrase came from. It may come as a shock to some that this phrase originates from the, not so comedic, scenario of someone who is about to hang himself kicking the bucket he’s been standing on out from underneath his feet. I will take a timeout here while you push that image out of your mind and instead gaze upon this picture of the smiling Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.

The message underlying making a list of adventures one wants to have seems to be, "What I'm doing right now kind of sucks, but I have plans for greater things." Let's be honest, most people don't fill their pails with things like, "Sit in a comfortable chair and watch TV," or "Lay down next to my dog in the knowledge that I don't have to go to work anymore." On the contrary, bucket lists are filled with gems like "climb Everest," "sky dive," "swim with dolphins" or "skydive with dolphins."

It's easy to see how inventories of what we'd rather be doing become the carrots we dangle in front of ourselves to take one more day of the sticks that prod us along through the minutia of our lives. However, this is where we mess things up; the idea that there's a better time just around the corner leaves us longing for moments other than the one we're in. In this way, aging becomes a countdown to the time when we can finally do the things we've always wanted to do, all the while hoping that these are the things that will finally bring us happiness.

This is not to say that fantasies and dreams about travels to distant lands, or engaging in new activities, are bad things. However, as menus to check off before heading for the big banquet in the sky, they may just be missing the point. Consider a possible alternative list, one that has nothing to do with dying but everything to do with living. 

1. Write a thank you letter to all of the people who have positively influenced my life.
2. Learn to sit quietly without wondering, "What next?"
3. Learn to walk without carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.
4. Cheer on others as they run a marathon.
5. Turn all of my mountains back into molehills.
6. Turn my home into an exotic place.
7. Learn to truly speak my native tongue.
8. Dive out of bed looking forward to the day.
9. Hug the people I love.
10. Swim with dolphins (Some things are just too cool to leave out.)

While adventures can add excitement to life, they do not guarantee happiness. Sure, it's great to hear stories of someone's travels to Europe and how he got sick on escargot and took a selfie with the Mona Lisa. But personally, I'm more impressed by people who get up everyday and go to their jobs, give their all, and return home to feed and love their families

How ironic would it be if it turned out that, when all is said and done, it’s the bucket that’s really important not what we fill it with? Or, that in order to find what we’re really after, we have to empty our buckets? I’m adding that last one to my list, just in case.

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