Kicking It

by Tom Swift

Something on my bucket list is to never have one.

I don’t know what it is about that phrase but it makes me cringe.

The most recent instance in which I saw “bucket list” used was last night during bedtime reading; it appeared in a teaser for a magazine article, a profile of a hockey player, I otherwise might have wanted to read. (Apparently, the player in question has an “NHL bucket list.” So ubiquitous is the phrase we now have bucket list categories? More likely it is a sportswriter being too clever by half.)

It is not hard to find other uses of the term. I heard it in conversations at least twice in the last week and I’m not especially social. It is, in fact, accepted usage; you do not have to explain what you mean by “bucket list.” These are things you want to do before you die. Duh.

“Bucket list” entered the lexicon following a 2007 Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman vehicle of the same name that currently rates at 41 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (It’s my understanding it’s not a bad movie but rather an historically bad one.)

The “bucket” part of the phrase comes from the idiom to “kick the bucket,” which very probably originated with the act that used to happen when a person was hanged (voluntarily or involuntarily, I suppose). You stand on the bucket with a noose around your neck and then the bucket is kicked and shortly thereafter you meet your maker.

What I do know about my reaction to “bucket list” is that it’s not because of a fear of death or a dislike to discuss the idea of death. I do not have a problem with people considering their own mortality publicly or making out-loud vows about what is important to them about the time they are allotted on this earth. On the face it, that seems wise. That seems healthful. No one wants to be on his or her deathbed and experience deep regrets.

So what is it about the phrase that sparks a visceral reaction in me? I don’t know but possibly it has to do with the fact that nearly every time I have heard the phrase used it is done so in conjunction with entertainments. People want to go to Peru or swim with dolphins or see their favorite football team play in every stadium in the league. I never hear someone say that they want to have exponentially raised their consciousness or experienced a love so great.

Very possibly I am simply not a fun guy. But I think that pleasure can be experienced in both shallow and deep waters. And my sense is that we are so consumed with the shallow that we’re missing much. It seems bucket lists seldom pertain to the indescribable satisfaction that comes from learning or growing or overcoming or connecting or being part of the solution to a significant problem. (The phrase itself is fitting to describe that which is flip.)

This morning, before writing these words, my little buddy and I were on a long walk, early, well before the sun came up. In the rare instances in which I saw evidence of people awake it was on account of the glow of a screen. Now I know nothing about these persons — maybe they work an overnight shift or maybe they are doing the very work they need to be doing to be the persons they are and wish to be. Yet what I saw — one man looking at what appeared to be a computer and a living room strobe-light glowing from a television program or movie — reminded me of how much time we spend — all of us, certainly myself included — on things that are facile and not likely to be matters that will come up in our deathbed considerations.

The paradigm of life is such that living-making and care-taking involves much tedious and sometimes dispiriting work. To be — and to help others to be — we cannot engage constantly in that which we might like or want, even if we are attuned to our highest selves (and there are biological limitations to that.) Yet there also is a lot that we allow to keep us from that person, too. The screens symbolize this for me because the screens capture our attention and scatter it. (To be sure, screens can serve good purposes and there are many other frivolous endeavors that do not come in high definition.)

I know it’s a battle for me. And I don’t even own a TV.

That reading time last night I mentioned above came in part because some minutes before I had turned off my phone and my tablet and even my computer. All the way off, not just put them to sleep. If I wanted to consume any additional intellectual stimulants it had to be words on paper. I realized as I picked up the magazine and later a book, and as I scribbled in my notebook, that of late I have watched YouTube or checked an app or whatever late at night rather than read or write. I can’t speak for anyone else but how I feel after reading words on paper versus watching YouTube is the sort of difference between cheap and fortifying, between shallow and deep, I attempted to describe above. The former makes me feel more alive and calmer; the latter makes me feel less energized and more angsty.

Another way to consider the deathbed face-the-music moment, perhaps then, is not what we did but how alive were we when we did it.

Of course, we only know ourselves who we are in a given moment. You can’t regret what you don’t know of. Yet we do know, don’t we, that somewhere inside there is something so sacred we must honor it?

I have not seen Bucket List: the movie. But I wonder if that is why it did not resonate — maybe because it aimed at the shallower part of us.