Why I Threw Away My Bucket List

(photo: Shutterstock image)

The other day I was rooting around in a seldom-used drawer, and I came across some old documents from back in my early 20s. There were work papers, notes from college classes, as well as some jumbled receipts and bills. I glanced at each item to see if it was worth keeping, and paused when I came across a familiar notebook. It was a pocket-sized, with a faux leather black cover, and on the first page was a list of things I wanted to do before I died. I didn't know this term at the time, but it was a "bucket list."

I spent a lot of time putting that thing together. I thought hard about what activities I found most interesting, what kinds of places I thought I would most enjoy. When I finally wrote them down, I thrilled to consider the list before me. So many exotic places, such unique experiences! I felt certain that if I could even cross off half the items, I would be happy and fulfilled. And so, thanks to a good job that allowed me to work remotely, I began working down the list.

It didn't take long before I realized that this bucket list wasn't going to do what I thought it would do.

For one thing, it made it hard to live in the moment when I was under pressure to enjoy it to the hilt. For example, I had always wanted to have a beer in an English pub. When I actually found myself having a beer in a real English pub, it was hard to ignore that voice in the back of my head that screamed, "THIS IS A MOMENT FROM YOUR BIG LIST! ARE YOU ENJOYING IT?! ARE YOU SOAKING IN EVERY DETAIL?!" It made me awkwardly self-focused: Whereas normally I might have been able to kick back and have a relaxed conversation with the other patrons, because this was a "bucket list" moment, I had an unusual level of awareness of my experience of it. Was I happy? Was the music as good as I had hoped it would be? Would it be more pleasant for me if there wasn't so much smoke in the air?

There was another, deeper problem as well, one that I could never quite articulate. Each time, after one of these moments had passed, I was left with a certain uncomfortable feeling. It was the same emotion you might experience if you'd been given an gorgeously wrapped gift package, decked out in glistening ribbons and richly colored paper, only to open it and find it to be empty. It was an odd combination of gratitude mixed with disappointment, one that triggered a sense of yearning stronger than if you'd never received the gift in the first place.

It wouldn't be until my conversion to Catholicism years later that I could pinpoint what that feeling was all about. Then I finally realized: Fulfillment can never be found in experiences; fulfillment only comes from unity with God. You can go climb a mountain in Tibet, and it might be exhilarating, but if it doesn't lead you closer to God it won't make you happy. Any happiness you feel will fade away like a puff of smoke once you get back home, and you'll be left craving a new experience, only to have the cycle repeat again.

As I looked over that old list, it occurred to me that my life is actually more interesting without it; ironically, I think I have more cool experiences now than back when having cool experiences was the focus of my life. Yet sometimes I'm tempted to get out a sheet of paper and create a new one. I'll gaze at the pictures on my Beautiful Places board on Pinterest and be suddenly and forcefully overcome with a feeling that my life is utterly lacking and will have been a total waste if I don't set foot in every one of these locations before I die (I call this "Pinterest-itis").

Coming across the list in that black notebook was a good reminder of where that kind of thinking leads, particularly when I saw the items that had been scratched off. When I thought back on those moments, I remembered that feeling of emptiness that always followed them, the angst that comes with seeking experience for experience's sake. I ripped the worn piece of paper from the notebook, and as I tossed it into the trash can, I was thankful for the reminder that God's lists are always better than mine.