In childhood we learn about all sorts of fun stuff that we can’t do now but might when we’re older, and we fall into the habit of anticipating a much richer future. It’s a habit that serves us less well in adulthood.
The temptation is to think that in adulthood just as in childhood, what we want most will come to us if we’re patient. We may fail to see that what we want most is not a particular object or experience but a way of being: an accurate sense of ourselves as competent, resilient, satisfied, and respected.
These qualities don’t just arrive, like objects longed for in childhood might arrive at Christmas as gifts. We have to go out and get them, and by participating in activity that promotes them.
In so far as patience is a virtue, the patient person does not defer endlessly: she defers when deferring is helpful.
The 2007 movie The Bucket List explored the vicious side of deferred satisfaction, and made more popular the phrase that gave it its title. A cancer-stricken motor mechanic, played by Morgan Freeman, is invited to amend a lifetime of living for others, and by doing as much as he can of what he’d thought he might do for himself.
The mechanic is abetted by a terminally ill fellow patient who owns the hospital where the two share a room. The health tycoon, played by Jack Nicholson, plans, funds and shares his new friend’s premortem spree.
The introduction of extreme wealth as a plot device guarantees that the bucket list will comprise episodes of consumption. The duo drive classic cars on a racetrack, leap from an aircraft, eat at a legendary restaurant and go on safari.
The mechanic enjoys the self-indulgence to a degree, but turns down an opportunity to cheat on his wife with a much younger beauty. He arranges for the tycoon to reconcile with his only daughter, from whom he has long been estranged. The tycoon defers.
The top five regrets
The movie’s release preceded the publication in 2011 of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Notably, “I wish I’d bought more peak experiences” didn’t make that list, which was compiled by the one-time palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware.
The five regrets Ware recorded were:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
A feature of Ware’s list is its resistance to late-stage rectification, no matter how well resourced is the person expiring.
The regret is that you haven’t lived in a way that has satisfied you, and the time has passed when you might have lived differently. Choices that might have brought more satisfaction are no longer available.
The chuck-it list
A contemporary revival of the bucket-list concept invokes the list in reverse – as the chuck-it list: a list of stuff we had thought we wanted to do but don’t, actually.
The chuck-it list is designed to relieve us of shame we might carry from our living as gonnas – our imaginations captured by all the stuff that we’ve deferred but we’re gonna do one day.
The chuck-it list was promoted by a Minnesota-based philosopher, Valerie Tiberius, who said in an August article that she had consigned to hers riding in a hot-air balloon, parasailing (where you rise on a wing that is towed by a motorboat), and riding 100 miles in a day on her bicycle.
The first two items barely warrant their listing, for either abdication could be reversed very late. More interesting is the ambition to cycle a century, as it’s called, for it is about becoming a certain sort of person – a dedicated long-distance cyclist – and its chucking therefore is more likely final.
The chuck-it list creates a third option for the Bucket-List mechanic and his lustful sidekick, allowing them to avoid both regret and the empty chase after missed peak experiences. Each can simply accept without leaving his bed that if he hadn’t got around to skydiving, then he had not ranked it highly among his priorities. What he had most wanted to do, he had already done.
The mechanic’s twilight spree is understandable, but it is more about his late connection with riches – before he was diagnosed, he knew no billionaire well – than it is about deep regret over what he had under-prioritised. The self-made tycoon, clearly, has lived a self-directed life, if one that has under-emphasised the value of friendship and family.
Chuck-it list limits
A comfortable abandoning of an item on Ware’s list is hard to imagine, however.
Can someone really accommodate the view, when death is near, that even though she feels dissatisfied from living as others expected, she must not have wanted, after all, to follow her own star? The fact of the dissatisfaction undermines that conclusion.
Can any of us say that we cannot have wanted enduring friendships, after all? Or more poignantly, that we cannot have wanted to allow ourselves to be happier?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then there are limits to the kinds of goals, desires and ambitions we can honestly repudiate.
Growing a superpower
The items on Ware’s list all have something in common with Tiberius’s foregone desire to one day cycle a century: none of them is susceptible to fulfillment from last-ditch thrill tourism.
It would feel hollow for Tiberius to pay a Tour de France domestique to pedal her across a hundred miles in a day on a tandem. The point of riding the 161km is not just to experience the road passing under your wheels. It is to become a person for whom, even briefly, the feat is achievable solo. It is to experience yourself as having grown a superpower.
Similarly, the point of living as you choose, rather than as you are told, is not mainly that doing so might bring you the outcome you wish for. It is to experience yourself as a free person, exercising choice and developing judgment.
Which brings us back to the bucket list – the list of things that we want to do before we kick the bucket but that we don’t want to do now. In a life lived without regret, what’s on the list?
Optimally, I suggest, it’s what’s on the chuck-it list. Arguments to the contrary are welcome as comment.