It’s become a tired cliché, but the concept still rings true: The bucket list, a list of the goals, experiences and dreams you want to fulfill—as if life were only a matter of crossing things off a list. So, you cross everything off and then what? You’re dead? That’s no prize. Or, maybe you get to the end of the list and just find more stuff to add to it. In that case, life becomes a process, rather than a life lived. However, as ordered creatures, it’s natural to think about our lives as moving from activity to activity, like bed to work, breakfast to lunch, etc., from one project or goal to the next. We like to take stock, or even pride, in what we have accomplished.
Most often bucket lists involve places to visit or activities that we’d like to do but haven’t allocated either the time or resources to do them, like visiting Paris or skydiving. There’s a somewhat current Facebook meme that gives you a point for each activity you’ve accomplished, and it’s a popular way to see how you compare to your friends; it’s silly entertainment, trivializing your life.
On a more considered and serious note though, most of us have an internal list of our life’s goals, the things we want to achieve for ourselves and our families before we kick the proverbial bucket. Get a degree, a job, financial security, children, grandchildren, a sports car. OK, that last one was all me. But seriously, as I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to keep tabs on how well I’m marching past my line of goalposts. I think I’m tying it all together pretty well. At this later point in my life, I’ve got a lot to look back on with a fair degree of satisfaction. I don’t really have much left to prove or resolve. I know this sounds like bragging, and I guess it is, a little. But it’s a nice feeling. More importantly, however, it’s allowing me to take a different path, to do things I’ve not had the time or flexibility to do, things that I couldn’t do because I had obligations. I had the obligation to provide for my family, my patients, my practice, and to just about everyone and everything, it seemed. This isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed my life; I have very much. But it’s different for me now.
To a degree, the weight has been lifted, and I’m finding myself approaching each day with a lighter step and less worry. It’s freeing and it’s fun to not have to engage with serious concern for what the future holds, but instead to simply go and do. In my younger days I was intense. Everything mattered—a lot. And, I felt success was hard-won. This approach worked, but took its toll. So, at this stage, after looking back at all the items on my list that have been accomplished and the milestones achieved, I can give a sigh of relief, a relaxing of my shoulders and perhaps even a small smile. It feels a bit weird, but a good weird. I’m getting to like it. And, surprisingly, those around me seem to notice and like it to.
At the risk of being morbid, I think I’ve gotten to this better place because to a large degree my life’s work has been accomplished. Now everything that follows is gravy—doing what I want to do, without the Sword of Damocles over my head. I can proceed with a quiet sense of both closure and new horizons. I hadn’t really expected this. And maybe I could have had it a lot sooner if I had taken a different approach to life. But I’m pleased I’m here at this point at all. Now, instead of feeling like I have obligations, I have opportunities. To do new things, to enjoy my life and to finally have an empty bucket.
Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.