cycling · meditation

Bucket lists bug me

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Pug in bucket

The term “bucket list” first entered my lexicon with the 2007 movie of the same name. You’ve probably seen it. Confession: I haven’t. IMDB tells me that it’s about two men who are terminally ill and who escape a cancer ward to fulfill their dreams before they die.

Urban dictionary defines “bucket list” this way: “A list of things to do before you die. Comes from the term “kicked the bucket.” I need to remember to add skydiving to my bucket list.”

And my newsfeed is regularly full of bucket list related stuff. “20 places on earth to see before you die.” I think the book section at Costco has an entire shelf devoted to the genre of bucket list books.

My personal favourite is the deliberately over the top bucket list from Elite Daily aimed at young, rich men. It includes foursomes (threesomes are so “everyman”), heli-skiing, celebrity affairs, and even space flight: “Take a moment to understand how lucky you are, because you live in the glorious 21st century. Astronauts are not the only individuals that can now travel to space. Our modern age has finally allowed anyone to explore the deep space. So, take a trip on the Virgin Galactic tour and envision our world from another perspective completely outside of Earth’s stratosphere. The experience will truly blow your mind away and will place you on a short list of people who have had the pleasure of enjoying this voyage.”

I’m mostly immune to the “50 exotic places on earth you must see before you die” lists. Global warming and carbon costs, on the one hand. Children’s tuition bills and home renovations, on the other. How are these different from lists of things you would do if you were stinking rich?

I know. I get the idea. Take death seriously. Remember that we’re all going to die. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Just one kick at the can. YOLO. Of course. I used to teach a course on Philosophy and Death and I’ve co-edited a book about it too. I even have several memento mori in my office. There’s a piece of office art, my smiling reaper, below. For me taking death seriously means living authentically, spending time now with the people I love and friends I care about, avoiding big regrets based on fear and what others think of me. Bucket lists don’t work for me because they seem to down play the value of everyday life favour of exotic distant locations and experiences.

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What’s the connection to fitness? Well, I keep finding myself clicking on links for bike ride bucket lists like this one since I’m drawn to new cycling experiences.  But now they’re starting to drive me up the wall too since they’re inevitably variants on the “exotic travel” genre.  Oh, Tuscany! How beautiful! Yes, I gather it’s great riding in Tuscany.

But most of us can’t afford to holiday in Europe.

I’ve even ridden in some pretty exotic locations myself: Arizona, Quebec, Newfoundland, the Otago Rail Trail on the South Island of New Zealand and I want to do them all again! But for me that’s largely been a matter of taking advantage of the beautiful places where I happen find myself. As a professional philosopher I’m loathe to talk of my “philosophy of life” but if I have one it includes learning to love that life you have and appreciating what’s nearby rather than yearning for experiences beyond your reach. I approached liking London, Ontario in just the way. In fact, it’s part of why I started cycling. We have great roads and lots of country towns to ride through. Opportunistic living.

I worry too that there’s something almost conceptually incoherent about bucket lists. They’re too much about escape, about individual experiences, about things that can be bought.

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that questions that usefulness of bucket lists and asks whether or not they’re a good idea.

“It can be useful to have defined goals, of course, but the lists seem to encourage a strange blend of highly individualised behaviour and conformity, a situation in which everyone is hurtling, alone, towards similar goals. The psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests, laughingly, that they might actually have been started “as a brilliant PR stunt by somebody who was selling swimming with dolphins”. There’s a consumerist, acquisitive vibe to many of the lists, with the experience they replicate being the writing of a shopping list, says Perry. Instead of building on what you already have, “to make a good life,” she continues, “it’s really an attempt to fill an existential void”.”

But they help us deal with death, right? The psychologist Linda Blair, again in the Guardian,, doesn’t think so.

“It’s a way of denying the idea of death, not coping with it at all … People usually do this to ensure that there are things to look forward to, which means there are things that are still going to happen … My experience warns me that it’s probably done in order to prevent thinking about death.” Perry sees it as a way of dealing “with how to pass the time. I think it’s a way of trying to generate some excitement.”What we should be doing in our bucket lists,” Perry says, “is learning how to be open with our own vulnerabilities so that we can form connections with other human beings … I think, for me, what’s wrong with the bucket list is that it’s individualistic – the idea of the isolated self goes very deep in Western society – and I think it’s a red herring … It’s a distraction from the business of being human. We don’t all like swimming with dolphins but we are all made to connect to each other. That’s the really fun thing to do before you die.”

This reminds me of some of the feminist criticisms of the philosophical literature on death. See my paper Feminist Philosophers Turn Their Thoughts to Death for the full version. Short version: We make a mistake if we think of our lives as careers, as a long list of achievements and experiences to tick off along the way. Death can come at any time. As Leonard Cohen says, narrating the NFB documentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, death comes without warning. Love his voice. He’s the perfect narrator for that. Bucket lists assume a kind of control over death that most of us simply don’t have.

If that’s too gloomy a thought for you, here’s a bucket list I do like: 26 Things to Do on a Bike Before You Die.

I like the vibe because it’s not individualistic: Share cycling with others! Lots of the items are very doable: Ride a century! My favourite: Race!

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16 thoughts on “Bucket lists bug me

  1. Love, this and came at just the right time. My college-age daughter is getting ready to spend three months flitting around Europe (with money she earned — NOT mine!), and my life, groaning with the mundane, has been looking greatly diminished in comparison. This post, therefore, really spoke to me. You have a consistently interesting and helpful blog here; very much enjoy reading your posts, and the always thoughtful links.

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  2. While interval training on a stationary bike at the gym last night, I watched part of a quite stupid but very funny movie starring Chris Rock, titled “I Think I Love My Wife”. The movie was really only funny because Chris Rock is so funny. But one line in the movie did strike me. It went something like this: “Whoever said that you have to live life like you’re going to die tomorrow was off his rocker! Life is long, and you have to build it as something that counts for you and for the others you let in your life.” I’ve probably mangled the actual line but that’s what I took from it, and I liked it, for very similar reasons as you’ve explained in this blog.

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  3. I just wrote a bucket list of Triathlons I’d like to do. I can definitely see your point and living in the moment is what I aim to do. I enjoy my life and try to see at least one positive in every day, even now when I’m not able to train due to a virus 😦 But I’m alive!!!!!

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  4. I’m not sure exotic travel is an essential feature of bucket lists. Welshveganfood’s list of triathlons makes me wonder more about the difference between goals and bucket lists. But I totally agree with you about the “things to do before you die” mentality. A thing that bugs me about it that you didn’t mention as such is that it makes it seem as if someone else can hand you a list of things that you would find fulfilling. And that if your life doesn’t include these, it somehow falls short. It’s just another form of consumerism. And as you know, I’m with you on the idea of loving the life I have now, day in day out. I like vacations, but I agree with the quote that if I’m looking to them as ways of escaping from my life, that’s not a great comment on my life!

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  5. I really enjoyed this post, even though I have a touch of the “bucket list” mentality myself. Although the truth is, my list is only partially exotic locations/experiences and is mostly more mundane shit like have a kid and write a book and get more tattoos and qualify for Boston, which I think speaks to Tracy’s point about the difference between goals/aspirations and a bucket list. So maybe I don’t really have a bucket list, now that I think about it.

    I try to bring the concepts of mindfulness and being present into my day-to-day life because I find that those things have more of an impact on my quality of life than do the big flashy exotic experiences I’ve gathered over the years. Like, I’ve spent only about a total of twenty days in my life in countries that are not the United States, and so if I made THAT my benchmark for happiness and fufillment in life, I’d be fucked. So it’s a lot more satisfying and also more useful for me to focus on my daily life and making that as enjoyable as it can be. That’s not to say that I don’t go for the once-in-a-lifetime adventures when they present themselves, just that I try to keep them in perspective.

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    1. Yeah, I don’t have a beef with lists per se: races I’d like to do, goods I’d like my life to contain, places I’d like to visit, sports I’d like to try…

      It’s the “before I die” bit that gets me. And so often they’re full of unaffordable goods and travel. Yes, I’d like to be rich before I die too! But as you say, how about we work a bit more on appreciating the goods we do have.

      And also, yes, more tattoos.

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  6. I’ve always been somewhat adverse to goal-setting as it has always seemed to me like something outside myself, in some way. If a person loves certain works of art by, say, Titian, and wishes that some day he might travel to certain art museums containing those works so that he can see them in peson, to me, that’s not a goal or on a bucket list. It’s simply a desire to see a certain work of art in person, i.e. it isn’t about trying to change your life or who you are by experiencing something and thereby filling some void. It’s something specific whereby you truly connect to something outside yourself, and in this way it’s not “goal-related”. It’s more about wanting to process the experience of seeing the artwork in person. Goals as I usually think about them are “end goal”-related more than they are process-related, the “end goal” usually being about somehow changing yourself in some sense or at least being taken outside of yourself. They are not usually related to increasing your understandings about yourself and others, or simply becoming more you. Not that I’m all against all cheap thrills, by the way – sometimes it’s nice to experience some escapist pleasures. But we don’t usually use words like “goals” in connection with simple escapist pleasures. We want our “goals” to somehow define who we are and how we appear to others. The man who wants a foursome as a goal thinks that having one will mean something about himself – possibly that he’s so attractive and powerful that he gets to have 3 women all over him sexually. If he sets the foursome as an actual goal, he likely wants it to mean something about himself that he hopes is true now but even if it isn’t, that he can make true if he succeeds. It’s in this way that I think that goal-setting isn’t as much about becoming more who we are in a connected way, but is more about how we can imagine ourselves on a pedestal of some type in actual reality – setting ourselves actually apart from and above others and even ourselves.

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  7. Good points, Sam!
    And then there’s Sundance Channel’s “1001 Movies You Must See (Before You Die)”. Sadly, they do not say what will happen if you die without having seen all of them.

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  8. Another thing about these “lists” is, that it doesn’t leave room to focus on one thing, or place, or activity or even book. I’ve found that while I sometimes get the feeling that I “should read this, watch that, go there” – there is a joy on focusing on one thing. Sometimes watching a film again I love or re-reading a favourite book gives me more joy then trying to catch up with a never ending list.

    I agree that in the end what makes up a life aren’t those moments that are suppose to be so special (that often don’t live up to expectations), but the little things in our every day life (and the people we share it with). I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit (living in central Europe makes it easier and cheaper) and I have had some of the best times in my life on holiday – but there is joy and contentment that can be felt in the everyday, that I think is different then those moments out of the ordinary.

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    1. Excellent point. I also sometimes feel that pull when I watch an old much loved movie or reread a fave book. Certainly I feel that way about travel. Life is to short to SEE ALL THE PLACES. In the end, we have to make choices and it’s good to appreciate your own corner of the globe for what it has to offer.

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  9. Sam, your post came at a great time! I’ve been thinking over my potential travel plans for next year, and the options are dizzying– conference in Mexico City (are you going to FAB/IAB?), possible trip to California for friends’ 10th anniversary, another conference in Alberta, possible trip with Dan to Italy…. the list can go on. These aren’t exactly “bucket list” trips, but I was made aware that we do feel pushed to have a whole bunch of spectacular/impressive/varied/intense experiences, when in fact having the regular, rich, often mundane but satisfying experiences of our lives is a deep source of life-long satisfaction. I can slow it down, pick and choose, and really enjoy whatever I end up doing (for which I am very lucky to have such opportunities), whether it is Rome or St Catharine’s, Ontario.

    One of my cycling goals/aspirations is this: take more night-time rides. They are such a thrill, whether on-road, off-road, going fast or slow. I was eyeing one of the local bikeways in Boston the other night, thinking, why didn’t we ride our bikes to and from the theatre tonight? It would have been even more fun. Another goal is this: try to ride some bike or other whenever I am in a new place (conference, visit, whatever). It is so much fun exploring a new place on two wheels. Am thinking of procuring a folding bike for this purpose. So, anything that provides a justification for buying another bike is a good thing.. 🙂

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  10. Love this! Sure, there are things I’d like to do, and things I plan to do, and things I hope I’ll do — but I’m living NOW, and I’m quite fond of my life as it is.

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  11. I don’t have a bucketlist in that sense of word..sounds like a collection of personal stars to reach. I total agree with this: “Short version: We make a mistake if we think of our lives as careers, as a long list of achievements and experiences to tick off along the way. Death can come at any time. ”

    May I report that a Canadian blogger (Ottawa) who was a cyclist, athletic (paddling, hiking), with whom she and I exchanged comments on each other’s blog: I found out last week, she committed suicide this summer.

    On her blog, it reflects a high achiever (career wise), a literal blog “bucket list” menu drop down of places she had travelled. it was a travel blog. But in the end, she revealed she had problems with her boyfriend who didn’t understand her travelling, it kept her away from him..

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