By Bob Ritzema
I wrote earlier about the phenomenon of bucket lists, suggesting that striving to complete such a list before one kicks the proverbial bucket might be a way of trying to keep mortality at bay. More recently, I was intrigued by an article by Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker website on the same topic. After describing the origin of bucket lists and providing some examples, Mead considers the appeal of making a catalogue of things one wishes to do before dying: “To stop and think about the things one hopes to do, the person one hopes to be, is a useful and worthwhile exercise; to do so with a consciousness of one’s own, unpredictable mortality can be a sobering reckoning….” However, Mead notes that most bucket lists don’t serve as aids in the examination of one’s life and what one wants to do in the light of our impermanence:
“More often, it partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through, rather than being worthy of repeated or extended engagement. Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.”
Mead sees bucket lists as part of a broader way of engaging with the world “whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention—an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé.” She suggests that instead of making a bucket list we make a list of things to experience over and over, with our understanding deepening with each repetition.
Mead’s comments raise the question of what sorts of experiences we should seek to have in the years remaining to us. I think she’s right to suggest that the bucket-list approach doesn’t allow these sought-after events or experiences to fully impact our lives—to nourish or challenge or change us in some way. If we do take her approach and choose a select number of things to experience again and again, though, how do we decide what to put on the list? Would it be better to watch It’s a Wonderful Life or Tree of Life every year? To repeatedly visit Stonehenge or Stoney Brook? To re-read The Lord of the Rings or Lord of the Flies?
I would like to suggest that the experiences worth having again and again are ones that somehow touch our deepest desires, what Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser describes as “an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else.” As I see it, experiences that are worth having again and again are those that either get us in touch with our deepest human desires or help us satisfy them. The familiarity of these experiences helps us encounter them at a depth that isn’t present in first time experiences.
In the U.S., this is a time of year that is full of things we experienced before–holiday decorations, Christmas carols, Salvation Army Santas, gift-giving, holiday parties. Though there’s an element of newness in some holiday traditions–this year’s gifts are different from last year’s, after all–even this newness is embedded within familiar rituals. When traditions are repeated mindlessly or out of social obligation, they don’t satisfy our inner longing. However, if we enter into them with full awareness of the currents of meaning that flow beneath the surface like a river in winter flowing beneath ice, they can truly satisfy our cravings.
Perhaps the meanings that underlie many of our holiday rituals to do with our yearning to belong. The rituals of the holiday remind me that I belong to a family where everyone is important, a community that seeks to cheer its members and support those in need, and a faith that celebrates God coming down to join humankind. As I get older, the Advent season, the season of waiting, has become a fondly-remembered inn welcoming me as I return to it once again after a year’s wanderings. Entering its doors, I feel that I belong and I look forward to what I have experienced there many times before–listening to Handel’s Messiah, sending cards to friends, reading the Christmas story, and gathering with family. With food as rich as this, I would much rather be nourished by the familiar than look for something new to consume.
I would be interested to hear from readers what experiences provide for them ever deeper sustenance if repeated again and again.
By Bob Ritzema