We should seek out experiences that transform and liberate us, not just a list of accomplishments to rattle off at the next cocktail party.
SUMMERTIME is on the way, and Seattleites and mountaineering neophytes from around the world will soon gather on Mount Rainier to try to fit its massive hulk onto their “bucket lists.” As a guide who has shared this summit with climbers more than 80 times, I understand the pull this stunning fixture of the Northwest skyline can have on the heart, and I’m wholly in favor of the experience, challenge and personal growth that climbing this majestic peak can provide.
Today, many people are bending the linguistic origins of the phrase “bucket list” and applying it to a checklist of accomplishments that can be rattled off at a cocktail party. But bucket lists are for the dying. It’s time we stopped using the concept to define and confine us.
A bucket list used to be something you put things into right before you kicked that bucket over — as in dead. Since then, more and more baby boomers with cash, free time and an approaching life deadline came on the scene, and the bucket list transformed into a piece of the common parlance. The symbol for the end of life became a symbol of the very container for it, regardless of the amount of time the person may have left on the planet.
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Just this winter, I was talking with a twenty-something undergrad about the North Cascades’ myriad climbing options, and he told me, “Yeah, that’s definitely on my bucket list.” I don’t think he plans on dying anytime soon. But when we begin to view experiences — be it mountain climbing, sky diving or learning a language — as material objects to be placed in a bucket, something of the experience itself dies. Just as you can’t put water in a bucket and call it a river, you can’t put experiences in a bucket and call it life.
Many people are looking to fill their buckets with achievements, not experiences. It isn’t the activity itself that captures the individual imagination; it is the vision of the self having done it. The bucket has become some kind of briefcase that a person carries around, full of resumes to dole out when requested — or not.
These containers are limiting. Having climbed with people on Rainier, Denali and some of the highest points in South America, I know that climbers are often professionally successful, achievement-oriented people. Unfortunately, they often transfer a set of behaviors that function in their work world to what should be the liberating world of play. Pursuits become directed toward social status rather than personal growth.
Bull-running, sky-dives, mountains climbed: When our adventures are bucket-list items, they simply become objects we use to impress others, just like the hippest jeans, flashiest car or most-liked posted on a social media site. None of these things will mean anything to any of us when we’re dead.
It’s time for us to re-imagine the meaning and spirit of the bucket list. It shouldn’t be a list of things to include in our obituary, but a list of things that truly, deeply and authentically inspire us. Let our list be about what we want to do, see, accomplish and learn while we are alive.
Beyond define, beyond confine, let our lists liberate us.