What the hell is a Bucket List?: A Brief [too brief, and probably inadequate] History Lesson

I figure that if I am writing a blog about a Bucket List I should probably preface any entries with a brief historical background on what the Bucket List is and what precipitated its growth in recent years. I should have mentioned this already: I’m a full blown History nerd. Mostly, I am an all-around nerd but History is kind of my ‘thing’. I majored in History and am pursuing a career wherein I subject teenagers to History in all of its glory. For most people, I’ll be the teacher of the class you hated the most in high school. It’s cool and I am fully aware of what I am in for (years and years of volunteering have prepared me for the vicious and yet surprisingly sensitive and insightful modern day adolescent).

But I digress…

Most of us are familiar with the colloquial expression “kick the bucket.” According to my old friend the OED, a Bucket is: a beam or yoke on which anything may be hung or carried. It is not entirely clear when the contemporary use of this idiom came into being, but as the New English Dictionary explains,

The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify to die.

I suppose the Bucket List rose to its recent form of popularity after the debut of the 2007 Rob Reiner film The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. I did not watch the film myself until a few years after its release and I quite enjoyed it. It really resonated with me because I was already well into building and crossing off my own List.

Do we obsess over Death?

Some theorize that the Bucket List is a contemporary manifestation of societies changing attitudes regarding death. On Science Daily’s website, one article argues that “Much of American culture in the 20th century has been engagement in death avoidance…Bucket lists signify a willingness at least to discuss death again. But note how it is purely secular in its contours. It focuses on the here and now rather than the hereafter, which has been how people typically frame death.” How very Humanist. Another article I read while researching for this post entitled “Bucket Lists: America’s Most Idiotic New Past time” by Simon Doonan argues that we make our Bucket Lists with the belief that the “grim reaper [is] just minutes away.” Both of these articles discuss society’s ‘new’ this-is-how-we-come-to-terms-with death mechanism and the implications that this new attitude has on our everyday life.

While these views may indeed be true on a macro level, they do not describe my own reasons for having a Bucket List. In one particularly gripping scene of the Reiner film, Carter (Freeman) asks Edward (Nicholson) two very poignant questions:

You know the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven the Gods asked them two questions. Their answers determined whether they were admitted or not…Have you found joy in your life?…Has your life brought joy to others?

I am not “white-knuckled” in fear over death or aging. I just like to dream big. Building a Bucket List and crossing off items is fun, it is motivational, it is educational and it is the space in which I have found joy in my life. I’m still working on bringing joy to others.

I am sure there is more to be said about the growth of The Bucket List in contemporary society – I would love to hear your opinions.

Until next time, keep wandering.



One thought on “What the hell is a Bucket List?: A Brief [too brief, and probably inadequate] History Lesson

  1. Pingback: What the hell is a Bucket List?: A Brief [too brief, and probably inadequate] History Lesson | Wanderlust: Tales From a Bucket List

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