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The Bucket-Listification of Travel Isn't a Bad Thing (Except When It Is)

by Matt Hershberger Jan 9, 2017

I’VE NEVER SEEN THE BUCKET LIST. I’m not sure I know anyone who has: everything you need to know about the 2007 film was pretty much there in the trailer. Two older men who have extremely different backgrounds meet while undergoing treatment for cancer. They have lists of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” The white guy is rich, so he funds their trips around the world. They see amazing things. They learn about life. And then, though they didn’t show this in the trailer, one or both of them dies (it looks like it’s probably Morgan Freeman). It’s very touching.

Probably. As I’ve said, I didn’t see it — I know people who have had cancer, and it’s never seemed joyous or life-affirming to me, and I’m also not a huge fan of movies that, from the trailer, look like they were directed by a youth pastor.

But what has survived is not the movie itself — it’s got an underwhelming 40% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it’s the term “bucket list.”

Step 1: Accept that you’re going to die. Step 2: Travel.

As a marketing construction for travel sites like this one, the Bucket List is a godsend. It uses what is literally the most primal human urge, the fear of death, to get you to look at travel articles (full disclosure: I’ve written bucket list titles.). Not that we think of it that cynically — we’re usually just thinking, “Hey, these are cool spots we want to share. What title should we give it?” And then “to add to your bucket list” ends up being marginally shorter than “that you need to see before you die,” which is better for posting on Facebook, and voila! Extremely clickable travel content is born.

This isn’t a totally bad thing, though — it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of living without taking a minute to step back to consider if what you’re doing is what you want to be doing in the long run. And contemplating your mortality is a pretty good way of jarring yourself out of your bubble.

Granted, the vision of the world you see in the trailer to The Bucket List is kind of ludicrous — the real world just isn’t that well photoshopped — but given how much there is to see and how little time we have on earth, the idea itself isn’t a bad one. To a point.

Maybe the world shouldn’t be seen as a checklist.

I’ve had to stop making checklists of the cities I visit. Maybe I fear death a little bit more than other people, or maybe other people are just more confident than I am that they aren’t going to do something stupid and get themselves killed at a young age. But when I have a list of “must-do’s” in a city, I rush through my trip. I enjoy nothing. I cram it all in and mentally scratch the item off of my bucket list. The sooner it’s done the better.

It ends up being no different than a grocery checklist. And the understanding that “I may never come back to this place,” puts me into a panic that I have to do it all now, just in case my plane crashes on the way back.

The problem is that the stuff that I end up truly enjoying in life is more complicated than scratching something off of a list. I stopped making bucket lists when I started traveling with my wife. We’d go out into a new city, find a cafe or a bar, and we’d post up. We’d chat with strangers, we’d make jokes and read our books, and if we wanted to get up and leave, we went. There was a spontaneity to it that felt like we were living rather than just staving off death.

I realized, then, that I was never going to get to every country. That I was never going to read all of the books I wanted to read. That there was no possible way of scratching every last item off of my “bucket list,” that I would die with deeds undone, places unvisited, and things unsaid.

It should have been a horrifying thought, but instead it was liberating. Life is an incomplete, messy thing, and we do all sorts of things to extract order and meaning from it. It’s fine to write a bucket list and daydream. But life isn’t a listicle. To treat it like one is a tragedy.

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