Since my heart attack in 2008, I’ve been asked on occasion by friends and family (and even people who barely know me) if I now have a “Bucket List” – that Hollywood invention of the wonderful list of important-sounding things we must do before we kick the bucket. Nothing like a medical crisis, it seems, to remind us that life is short, and to shock us into re-examining our priority lists before we head off to that great Coronary Care Unit in the sky.
But the answer to that Bucket List question for me personally is your basic “NO!”
In fact, I sincerely doubt that I’d actually be any happier than I am at this moment if only I could one day go bungee jumping/skydiving/Caribbean cruising/hot air ballooning/bull riding/Everest climbing. One clear reason for this doubt, of course, is that we’re approaching our shared second anniversary of living through a pandemic (which means I would have had a hellish time even getting to that Everest base camp in the first place). Globally, we’ve had to put planned events on hold, from weddings to being allowed to hold the hands of dying relatives. Many people may have already started on a new Bucket List called “When COVID Is Over. . . ”
Pandemic restrictions aside, my own personal belief – well before becoming a heart patient – has long been that I always have enough time, money and energy to do what I really, really want to do.
I’ve believed this instinctively for decades, but the concept was cemented for me back in January 1983, when my late Auntie Mary organized a big family reunion weekend in Vancouver. She had invited her six brothers and sisters and dozens of our assorted relatives from across the country to attend this long-planned reunion. The excuses started arriving as soon as the invitations were sent out: Can’t afford to fly, too far to drive, kids will be back in school, can’t take time off work, the usual culprits. Some of our relatives did make it that weekend, but the majority, much to Auntie Mary’s great disappointment, did not show up for our family reunion.
But just three months after that Vancouver reunion, my Dad (a lifelong non-smoker) died suddenly of metastatic lung cancer at the age of 62. It was a terrible shock to all of us.
And those family members who couldn’t come to Auntie Mary’s family reunion three months earlier? Ironically, they all managed to arrive at my father’s funeral. Somehow, they found the money to book flights. Some drove hundreds of miles. They swiftly pulled their kids out of school, and told their bosses they’d need to take time off work. They all came to see a dead man they could have spent time with three months earlier while he was still very much alive (and having a great time with my mother at the Vancouver reunion!) After it was too late, seeing my Dad in his coffin was suddenly important to them.
How we spend our days is in fact how we spend our lives. Today, right this moment – not some day, one day, maybe, down the road, just in time before we kick the bucket. If something hasn’t yet been checked off your Bucket List, is it because it’s not actually important enough right now?
Perhaps the most important reason I don’t want a Bucket List:
I hate making To Do lists and don’t want to add anything more onto any of them.
A Bucket List is merely a fancy-schmancy To Do list with major deadline pressure, created by people who probably had good reasons for not already doing what they say they wanted to.
What about everybody’s favourite Bucket List goal: a fabulous vacation?
I once heard the American author PJ O’Rourke interviewed on BBC‘s World Book Club, in which he stated that he doesn’t actually get much pleasure out of traveling for pleasure anymore. He says, for example, that when on vacation, he inevitably ends up uttering inane sightseeing responses like:
“Well! This is beautiful! Isn’t this beautiful? So beautiful. Is it time for lunch yet?”
Vacation travel is simply not on any of my To Do lists any longer. After too many years spent traveling on business during my corporate PR career, I’ve already expended my lifetime quota of time wasted on waiting for delayed flights and car rentals, fretting over lost luggage, impossibly shrinking legroom, drinking bad coffee, trying in vain to get a good night’s sleep in too many strange beds, standing in endlessly long lines, making exhausting small talk with strangers I’ll never see again, and then recuperating from jet lag. Consider the last time you had to catch a late night flight. I don’t ever want to look (or feel) as bad as those waiting passengers in the Departure Lounge do.
If I never again see the inside of another airport, that would be just dandy with me. * Besides, I live in Lotus Land here on the magnificent West Coast of Canada, arguably the most gorgeous spot on earth. People from around the world save up their money all year long just to be able to travel here. Why would I ever want to leave?
And yet many of us seem to exist for those expensive far-off vacation dreams – and more of PJ O’Rourke’s inane sightseeing responses. Pre-COVID, for example, there were about 2 million of us Canadians traveling outside of Canada – and far more during major holidays. Many of us just can’t wait to get away from here. But remember:
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
And then, of course, there’s always the debilitating post-vacation “Oh No It’s Over!” reality hangover slump that hits just before you realize you need to go back to your real life tomorrow morning – and again after you open the credit card bills.
It’s mostly about expectations. In his Psychology Today essay, Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work, offers some tips on managing these expectations. Instead of making a Bucket List, perhaps we could, as Dr. Rock suggests:
- live a life with a good amount of novelty
- create opportunities for unexpected rewards
- believe that things are always going to get slightly better
Maintaining low expectations seems to be good practice for those of you deciding on your own Bucket Lists. Just imagine how horrible you’d feel, for example, if you actually did accomplish one of your ultimate Bucket List goals – let’s say, completing a triathlon – and it turned out to be an even uglier experience than a triathlon normally is!
Speaking of keeping our expectations in check, consider the wise counsel of Chicago physician Dr. David Lickerman, who blogs at Happiness In This World: Reflections Of A Buddhist Physician. Here’s his take on four distinct possible outcomes of our expectations:
- Low expectations and a poor experience, where our low expectations can mute the disappointment or even the discomfort we feel at actually having a poor experience
- Low expectations but a good experience, leading to a pleasant surprise
- High expectations and good experience, in which we get to enjoy not only the anticipation of looking forward to something fabulous but an experience that actually lives up to our expectations and therefore feels thoroughly satisfying
- High expectations but a poor experience, in which we often emerge bitterly disappointed or even traumatized
Another Buddhist health professional, Pennsylvania’s Michael Formica, is the editor and project coordinator for the non-profit organization, Living Beyond Breast Cancer. He may be on to something when he writes:
“Just as soon as humans cross the boundary from basic survival needs to social needs, we are inevitably doomed to foster a sense of our own perpetual dissatisfaction. This is a conflict that’s at the core of the human condition.
“Basically, this is a conversation about stuff. Not just material stuff, but all sorts of stuff – intellectual, emotional, social – all of our human stuff. When we collect some stuff, we, quite naturally, want more stuff. It is this desire for more that traps us in our own dissatisfaction, because we are always grasping for more.”
Bucket Lists by definition represent “more” of what we don’t have now, while somehow believing that if only we could have it/buy it/do it/eat it/climb it/see it/photograph it/experience it, we would really, finally, truly be happy at last.
Thus “more” becomes the fantasy cure for whatever dissatisfaction we feel for not having quite enough yet.
For me, it seems that the most likely road to feeling better might well start off with being content with the small pleasures of day-to-day moments, and by keeping expectations low.
And meanwhile, I’m going outside for a nice walk in the sun. . . ♥
* Update: I experienced two cardiac events on a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver in 2008. And speaking of airports that I hope to never set foot in ever again: my experience in San Francisco’s SFO after attending Stanford University’s Medicine X conference in 2012 takes the cake. Not only was the temperature a sizzling 100+ degrees F. all day, leaving me feeling limp as a damp rag, but the airport and United Airlines staff I encountered at SFO appeared intent on directing me (on more than one occasion) on a Three Stooges tour of not one but two major terminals over two frustrating hours in a fruitless game called “Where’s Gate 38?” – as it appears that knowing basic geography (such as: “Canada is not an American destination and thus does not belong in United’s DOMESTIC terminal”) doesn’t seem to be in the job description of the staff I encountered there. Never, ever again!
©Carolyn Thomas ♥ www.myheartsisters.org
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how heart patients’ plans can suddenly change in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).