Rethinking Your Bucket List

Ah, the bucket list. It’s that mythical list of all of the things you’re supposed to want to do, the places you want to go, the people you want to meet before you die. The bucket list is a relatively new creation, an imagining generated by our can-do, never-sit-still society that urges us to constantly experience new things, show no fear, and live each day as though it is your last. But as many have taken an idea that started with dying wishes and converted it into just another way to brag about their latest vacation or adventure, others are starting to reconsider the whole idea of the bucket list and what its message actually is.

If you google the words bucket list, you’ll find a wealth of websites tagged with phrases such as “change your life forever” and “designing your best life,” and then citing a list of activities such as jumping out of planes or climbing mountains or riding on an elephant. But those who work in hospice and who spend time with people who are actually in their last days have noted that few bemoan the things that they didn’t get to do or the places that they didn’t get to visit. The actual wishes of those who are truly living their last days have to do with not having lived their most authentic life. They mourn the time that they wasted trying to live up to expectations, whether others or their own, and wish that they had instead spent their time trying to identify the thing that made them uniquely themselves, and then to see where living in a way that was true to that identity would have carried them.

The actions and expressed thoughts of those who are truly living their last days on earth have much less to do with mourning the loss of physical ability or wishing that they had partaken of a specific activity then with letting go of things that have kept them from being who they really are. They change their minds about long-held beliefs. They become more honest and express things they’ve never talked about before. They apologize and forgive and tell the people in their lives that they love them. People who are dying appreciate their last moments and find joy everywhere they look. It is as though they are increasing their presence while their bodies diminish.

If you are advancing in years, and people are asking you about what’s on your bucket list, perhaps you should stop thinking in terms of what you have or haven’t done. Instead, look at what the meaning of your life has been and can continue to be. There is much to be learned from the way that others, forced by the failing of their bodies to stop looking outwards, have looked inward and discovered their authentic selves at the end of their lives. Perhaps we should reconsider our bucket list and stop thinking about all of the external things that we feel compelled to do, and instead sit still and look inward for answers. Look to the regrets of the dying and you’ll find that people wish that they had paid less attention to what was false and expected by society and those around them and more time on what was true about who they really were. Learning this lesson long before death approaches is a bucket list goal that will take you to the end of your life having lived with joy and no regrets.