August 31, 2021

'Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable': Why one woman won't be making a bucket list before she dies

Daily Briefing

    Writing for the New York Times, Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, explains why she won't be making a bucket list before she dies, and how she came to the decision.

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    A cancer diagnosis

    At age 35, Bowler was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, and doctors told her that she had a "slim chance of survival."

    "Suddenly years dwindle into months, months into days, and I begin to count them," Bowler writes. "All my dreams, ambitions, friendships, petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into a finite and dwindling number of hours, minutes, seconds."

    After her diagnosis, Bowler met with various counselors at her cancer clinic who told her to "find [her] meaning." In particular, they recommended that she make a "bucket list," since many other patients found making one to be "clarifying," she writes.

    The history of the 'bucket list'

    "A bucket list disguises a dark question as a challenge: What do you want to do before you die?" Bowler says. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, people all want "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," she writes.

    According to Bowler, the term "bucket list" is relatively new, with origins in the 19th century as a reference to "kicking the bucket."

    However, she writes that seeking out defining life experiences is "as old as our historical record." For example, Bowler writes that the ancient Greeks compiled a list of the Seven Wonders of the World, including the Pyramids of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And later, with the ascension of Christianity, people made pilgrimages to see sacred burial sites and holy relics, which Bowler writes "captures the stirrings of our curiosity and wanderlust, devotion and enterprise."

    In contrast, Bowler writes that the modern bucket list is "something else entirely." With a hundred books outlining places that people need to see or activities they need to do before they die, Bowler says the modern bucket list is a "form of experiential capitalism."

    Instead of helping people "grapple with [their] finitude," Bowler writes that bucket lists "approximate infinity." She says that bucket lists imply that people can do anything or be anyone they want if they have unlimited time and resources.

    "We can become more adventurous by jumping out of airplanes, more traveled by visiting every continent, or more cultured by reading the most famous books of all time," Bowler writes. "With the right list, we will never starve with the hunger of want."

    'Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable'

    Bowler writes that she initially resolved to follow the counselors' advice about writing a bucket list, taking inspiration from her old journals, some of which dated back decades.

    According to Bowler, she had kept similar lists since the 11th grade when she attended a leadership conference as a teenager and was instructed to "write down specific goals to achieve before [your] clocks ran out" as part of an encouraging activity.

    Looking over her old lists, Bowler noted what she managed to achieve over the years, such as planting an herb garden and traveling to Venice with her parents, and what she hadn't, like performing a cello solo in high school and seeing the pyramids.

    "When I wrote this list, I wasn't trying to imagine wrapping up my life," Bowler writes as saying to her husband. "I suppose, I was just … dreaming."

    Continuing to try to make a new bucket list, Bowler included places she wanted to go and careers she might have enjoyed, among other things. However, she eventually concluded that the items on her list were "alternatively boring, plausible, [and] unlikely."

    "[I]t is much easier to count items than to know what counts," Bowler writes.

    Ultimately, she writes, "Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started. We can only pause for a minute, clutching our to-do lists, at the precipice of another bounded day. The ache for more—the desire for life itself—is the hardest truth of all." (Bowler, New York Times, 8/28)

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