How Not to Let a Bucket List Become a List of Regrets

The doctors described the conditions of my aunt’s case unusual and bizarre. Her results were put on display for a board of specialists to dissect in hopes of determining the best course of action, only to come to a unanimous decision that they, also, didn’t know what to do. She was sent to another hospital, one that specializes in rare cases like hers.

As she traveled to this next appointment, she wasn’t thinking about her future, but rather her past. All that she had wished she’d done — going on that road trip to Texas, visiting her friend who lives out of state, maybe even gamble more. She realized she had a bucket list… one that hadn’t yet been fulfilled.

Just like in the 2007 movie, The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, there is a sense of adventure, fulfillment, and resilience that comes from crossing off a pre-death list; just ask the Internet. One Google search and the page is flooded with articles such as “101 Bucket List Ideas,” “10,000 Things to Do Before You Die,” and more like it.

But is chalking life up to numbers or dialing it down to one adventurous list an accurate reflection of the way a person lived their entire life?

Contrary to the film, a life list may not be filled with the same rom-com laughs (or an unlikely aunt who helps you jump out of a plane), but rather it warrants the discussion of whether or not your list of to-do’s is meant to beat death or avoid it, whether you should live by your bullet points before you find yourself racing time, or whether starting one at the end would just create a sense of hope or despair. Although crafting a list of must-dos appears to keep a person going, there’s a side not often seen, a side I wasn’t aware of until I was side by side with my aunt in the doctor’s office.

Watching her list grow longer with places she’d never been before and activities she still wanted to do, wasn’t producing some kind of super-human strength to beat the diagnosis she was facing. Instead, as she continued to name off place after place, thing after thing, it seemed to plant a solemn sense of regret, anxiety, and fear in her. Realizing she may be on a tight schedule to do all of what she had yet to do made her look at all that she had accomplished as being not enough.

The bucket list full of what she’s calling “wishes” was now resting on her shoulders as “regrets.” But to the outsider looking in, we can see that it’s not supposed to be that way. A sign of a good life should not be equated by how many checkmarks you have on a two-page, double-sided sheet.

What I learned sitting next to her that day was to live as unpredictable as life is itself. Living by a list can be a skeleton for how you want to spend your days, but you cannot allow it to be the final say on if you lived a full life or not. Being in pursuit of what you want — whether it be a career, family, stamps in a passport, or watching your favorite band from the front row — can never generate a sense of “not enough.” No curated checklist can hold the same value as the experiences and memories you have already lived.

Living with no respect to time is how you can somehow fit in that cup of coffee with a friend, how you can bring yourself to finally go on vacation, and how you can have the energy to spend your weekends outside instead of cooped up in the house. No person should feel the pressure of their time running out. That’s the problem with bucket lists; they are too respectful of time… they acknowledge they have the final say while politely asking for more, for the checkmarks.

Kaitlynn Labit is a freelance writer and editor based in Orange County who lives for brunch, believes in the power of retail therapy and extensive skincare, and hopes to own a French bulldog one day.

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