The currently popular movie The Bucket List stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as improbable ‘buddies’ who meet while in cancer treatment, then learn their conditions are likely terminal. Freeman has been constructing a ‘bucket list’ – things he wants to do before ‘kicking the bucket’. His character is a blue collar, God-believing family man, while Nicholson is typecast as a wealthy, unbelieving, multi-divorced playboy and workaholic.
Together they use their presumed last few months and Jack’s fat wallet to pursue a pooled list of things to do before you die – like driving fast cars, skydiving, visiting the Taj Mahal, etc. What starts as a somewhat hedonistic beat-the-clock comedy/adventure transcends, in the last third of the movie, into something more substantive. But this is an uneven movie and critics reviewing it have been all over the map. Roger Ebert, for example, was put off by the implausible circumstances that brought the characters together. His points are well taken, and he writes from the viewpoint of a cancer survivor. However, all movies require a certain suspension of disbelief. If that is difficult – and it is here – then you expect the story to make up for it by delivering something of value. And for me, it ultimately did.
However, this essay is not primarily a review, per se. Rather, I’d like to explore the idea of a bucket list, ostensibly central to the plot but really tangential to its heart. This idea is one frequently woven into our culture. There are books like Unforgettable Things to Do Before You Die. The Travel Channel has a program titled 1000 Places to See Before You Die. So it wouldn’t seem out-of-place if we too might have some vague list floating around our minds – experiences we want to add to our ‘bucket’, to be full-filled.
But such a metaphor frankly strikes me as bizarre, for Christian or Non. If death kicks our bucket empty then isn’t that like multiplying whatever experiential quantity we’ve accumulated – by zero? And any quantity multiplied by zero still equals zero. This is the brutal, nihilistic ‘fact’ for any atheist. What then can be valuable if death = annihilation? It would seem that some race against death to pile activities higher & deeper is an exercise in denial. Please understand that I don’t mean to denigrate pleasurable events and their memory. But I’d think a more fundamental consideration, if faced with a terminal diagnosis, would be to seriously assess any presumption that death is truly the end, rather than booking tickets to the Great Barrier Reef.
Now, if this sounds a lot like the classic Christian response to an unbeliever, it should. Christians cherish a hope for eternity and if death is not final then our bucket doesn’t really get kicked, at least not permanently, so the contents are not irrevocably spilled. And this is very good news if true. But is gaining eternal life the actual end goal? The mere trumping of death is what a mathematician would call necessary but not sufficient. After all, the classic Christian concept of everlasting Hell is also eternal life. But that eternity is composed of events unlikely to make the list of even the most dedicated masochist.
About now I would expect readers to interrupt with the as-yet unmentioned point that we are promised not just any old eternity, but heaven. And ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9).
Beyond quantity God presumably has the quality part covered, right? So shouldn’t we leave well-enough alone and be discussing something more practical? But wait. Is our conception of that promise the equivalent of some super-sized bucket list? Does God have a waiting agenda that will knock our celestial socks off? Flying out to personally inspect the rings of Saturn would certainly beat Space Mountain any day. I recall a children’s story at church years ago where the kids were asked about heaven. One responded: “I’m going to slide down the neck of a giraffe!” Is that how we think too? Only with a more expansive imagination from which to create our lists?
Here I am reminded of the Greek Myth of Sisyphus. The story is that, in the afterlife as punishment from the Gods, Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up the side of a mountain. Inevitably, as the incline increased he would lose control and the rock would roll back down to the bottom. So he had to start all over. And over. And over. Well that’s certainly far from our expectation of heaven. But is that our conceptual framework of heaven? We may not roll rocks inside the Pearly Gates but what will keep eternity from being just one-thing-after-another? Will we need each succeeding activity to be grander in some endorphin-like sense to mask a Sisyphus déjà vu?
So it’s not just the bucket kicking part I think needs deconstructing, but also and especially the idea of a bucket itself, which seems to measure a life in terms of experiential quantity. Instead it seems to me more appropriate and helpful to ask what God would envision our lives to be and how we should go about becoming. Note that this question should have the same essential answer now, or if we became terminally ill, and even deep into eternity.
An adequate investigation of this is well beyond what I am trying to highlight here. But such a life would constitute, to use Aristotle’s word: eudaimonea, which might be translated as ‘human flourishing’. Christians might prefer the word sanctification, although that idea is typically bound up with overcoming sin and this cannot be the essence of our lives any more than the essence of a dirty shirt is about its getting washed. Determining what it is to be fully human and fulfilling that should be our quest.
In the movie the idea of a list is merely a plot device to get two opposites together and its implications are not really considered. Ironically, it is during their pursuit, but not because of it, that they gain personal insights which are far more valuable than checking off accomplishments. And it is here that the movie is worthy of our consideration.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.