In defense of the bucket list: A response to the New Yorker post

The New Yorker published a post yesterday called “Kicking the Bucket List” which begins by talking about the increasing popularity of the bucket list in today’s culture, and progresses into a discussion on the significance and potential societal dangers of pursuing a bucket list.

I like her post, but I disagree with the point she makes at the end. I’ll write about it below, and you can join in the conversation in the comments, after you read the full original post.

At the end of the post, Rebecca Mead (the author) says the following:

As popularly conceived, however, the bucket list is far from being a reckoning with the weight of love in extremis, or an ethical or moral accounting. More often, it partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through, rather than being worthy of repeated or extended engagement. Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.

This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention—an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé. The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?

What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death? These places, experiences, or cultural objects might be those we can only revisit in remembrance—we may never get back to the Louvre—but that doesn’t mean we’re done with them. The greatest artistic and cultural works, like an unaccountable sun rising between ancient stones, are indelible, with the power to induce enduring wonder if we stand still long enough to see.

I acknowledge that this is a struggle for me. I can get frustrated when waiting for something to happen on my list, and it’s hard for me to accept when I don’t get a chance to do something when I planned to do. Still, I don’t want to rush through just checking things off the list. Part of the memory comes from reading my little summaries I write after I do each list item, so in that way I “revisit in remembrance.” More of the experience also comes from the planning process, which can sometimes last longer than the event itself.

My list has a mix of short and long-term goals, and even though (as with the example of graduate school) I didn’t always have the “patient dedication to an enduring attention” that Rebecca talks about, I also think that most of my short and long-term goals “ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé.” The key is that I actively think about what I’m learning from my experiences, regardless of the amount of time it takes for me to do them. My “patient dedication to an enduring attention” is seen in my dedication to my blogs and to my list overall.

Rebecca writes, “The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new.” My restlessness doesn’t come from being exposed to the same “art and culture” as before; in fact, I often want to return to look at and think about things I’ve experienced before. My restlessness comes from feeling like I want and need to make a difference in people’s lives, and feeling like I’m not doing that. My bucket list and this blog often help me feel like in some small way I am making a difference by inspiring people to make progress in following their dreams.

The last paragraph suggests “a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death.” I suggest that it is not the bucket list itself, but rather the approach to the list that matters.

Savor the process, planning, accomplishment, and remembering. If Rebecca is right, and we are obsessed with the YOLO (You Only Live Once) attitude, why would we want to rush through life without reflection? Let’s continue our lists, but don’t ever consider them done.


Agree? Disagree? Let’s continue this discussion in the comments below.

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