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Bucket List

David Cowles

Jul 2, 2024

“Kick the bucket…over. Recognize that every event is radically unique and enjoy it on its own terms… Every event is a Bucket Lister!”

The first time I heard the term Bucket List, I cringed. Talk about ‘measuring out your life with coffee spoons’ (Eliot). But I’ve only recently begun to understand my instinctive aversion.

Apparently, we have an inalienable right to ‘pursue happiness’. I’m not relying solely on the Declaration of Independence here. “I just want to be happy/don’t I have a right to be happy/whatever makes you happy/you don’t make me happy anymore” are phrases we hear every day. Pity the poor bartenders and beauticians who must earn a living by listening intently to these self-pitying memes, interjecting occasional sighs in appropriate spaces.

‘The pursuit of happiness’ is an oxymoron. Happiness is not a ‘thing’; it’s a ‘subjective form’ (Whitehead), an introspective state of mind. It can’t be pursued like a certain white whale. While external circumstances may, or may not, be more, or less, conducive to happiness, nothing makes us happy. Happiness is just one of many ‘forms’ we may give to events.

There is no word, happyfication, in the English language. Intuitively we understand that nothing can ‘make’ anyone happy; but we promptly forget that and set off down our own ‘whale road’ (Beowulf).  No wonder we’re miserable!  We’re fishing from dawn to dusk in a post-apocalyptic puddle.   

Imagine one of the things on my Bucket List is to visit the Grand Canyon. Here I am at the iconic rim – breathtaking, and yes, I’m smiling. Good thing because I haven’t been smiling much over the past few days. There was the usual logistical stress, compounded by a flight delay. Oh, and our ‘luxury accommodations’ turned out to be luxurious in price alone! 

But I’m not complaining. I’m glad I got to see one of the world’s wonders. But was I happy? Am I happy now?  Maybe, maybe not, but either way, can I give full credit (or blame) to the Grand Canyon?

“No, you don’t get it, the experience was fantastic. The hassles were a pin prick in comparison. I wouldn’t have sacrificed this experience for anything.”

Ok, great. But are you happy now? Happy that you saw it? Yes. Happy to cross another item off your list? Ok. But life is what fills the gaps between Bucket Listers and the ‘Bucket Kicker’. How happy are you now?

There are a lot of things I do, not bucket list worthy, that I enjoy. I’m happy while I’m doing them. Dining on foie gras, sipping a vintage port, taking in a Giotto exhibit at the Met. I suppose my memories of these events are somewhat pleasant as well. But does any of this make me happy? Then? Now? 

Whenever I experience anything, I automatically notice imperfections and I immediately imagine how I might ‘improve the experience’…next time: what would I do differently?

Rather than enjoying what is happening right now, I’m already thinking ahead. This is not the result of some character flaw; it’s human nature! It’s natural selection. When we do something pleasant, we seek ways to do it again, only better: “Next time… I’ll arrive earlier, dress more comfortably, and order a different bottle of wine.” Of course, that subverts the whole premise of a Bucket List: One and Done!

No experience, no matter how extraordinary, is ever ‘perfect’. It can’t be, by nature! ‘Perfect moments’ (Sartre) are idealizations. In Euclid’s world, the angles of a perfect triangle always sum to exactly 180 degrees. IRL, not all triangles are ‘perfect’; in fact, none are! No real triangle has angles that add precisely to 180.0000000… degrees.

There is an unbridgeable disconnect between the world of experience and the world of mathematics. Math deals only with ideal entities; IRL there are none.

Robert Frost gets it (The Road Not Taken):

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both 

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could…

Then took the other…

Oh I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back…

IRL there are no do-overs. Of course, you can try to correct your perceived mistakes but in the end it’s futile. For better or for worse, it’s one, done! The minute I say, to myself or others, “next time”, I’m guilty of bad faith. There are no ‘next times’, there are just those times and these times. 

“Oh time, it’s like a river… ain’t nothin’ but a river.” (Grayson Hugh) And what do we know about rivers? You can’t step into the same one twice. (Heraclitus)

So how do you want to live your life? Diagramming future events which, if realized IRL, will always differ significantly and unpredictably from their diagrams, events that will be perceived as ‘imperfect’ but that can never be ‘done over’. 

Of course, you can go back to thr Grand Canyon as often as you like, but each time you go, it will be your ‘first time going there’.

The world consists entirely of ‘events’ – what else could it consist of? Anything else would just be scaffolding. Events happen when objective values are applied to our experience of the Actual World. Each event is unique; comparisons are only derivatively real. 

Kick the bucket…over. Recognize that every event is radically unique and enjoy it on its own terms, without the baggage of anticipation, nostalgia, or comparison. Every event is a Bucket Lister!



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