cycling · meditation

Bucket lists bug me

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.


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!