Bucket lists distract us from life’s meaning

Morning along the Palix River at Willapa Bay. Credit: Willapalens/Flickr

Remember the 2007 movie, “The Bucket List,” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? In that classic of the buddy flick genre the two men confront their own mortality by leaping from planes, driving race cars, eating caviar, and motorcycling on the Great Wall of China. The idea is to get in as many amazing experiences as possible before you kick the bucket. (It is perhaps notable that this movie appeared before the Great Recession when such pursuits seemed at least a little more plausible.)

Urging the value of such a “bucket list,” a life coach and motivational speaker, Caroline Adams Miller, writes, “It’s not enough to react to life on a day-to-day basis. People need a road map. Life lists are one of the best ways to plumb the depths of the human psyche.” Well, maybe.

As the experience-oriented boomer generation faces mortality, a bucket list approach to life has undoubted appeal. And not only for boomers. Younger generations, for whom death is not on the near horizon, pursue extreme sports, global adventure, and the freedom of sex without commitment. Old and young, if they have the money, travel the world in search of the exotic. But does it work? Does experiential satisfaction work as a way of defining and making sense of life? Does it satisfy?

One of the most interesting of contemporary theologians, Miroslav Volf, has his doubts. Croatian by birth and upbringing, Volf’s own faith and work were shaped by the harsh world of a disintegrating Yugoslavia and the brutal conflicts of Serbs and Croats, Muslim and Christian. Today, he is a leading figure in efforts to build understanding between Christianity and Islam (one of his books is Allah: a Christian Response).

In his 2011 book, A Public Faith, Volf, the founder of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, traces what he describes as “the diminution of American (and Western) hope.” He notes that many people in America, and the West, “experiential satisfaction is what their lives are all about. [Experiential satisfaction] does not merely enhance flourishing; it defines it.”

“What matters,” continues Volf, “is not the source of satisfaction but the fact of it. What justifies a given lifestyle or activity is the satisfaction it generates — the pleasure. And when they experience satisfaction, people feel they flourish.”

Whether your thing is riding a Harley or Wagnerian opera, haute cuisine, sado-masochistic sex, Jesus, or the Seahawks (or writing for Crosscut) go for it! Find the thing that brings your pleasure, do that, and you’ve figured life out. Really?

This represents, Volf argues, “a diminution of hope” and really of life. Moreover, Volf notes that two other accounts of life’s meaning and of human flourishing have been predominant in the West before the currently prevailing ethic of experiential satisfaction. The first is a religious or theo-centric framework. The fifth century theologian, Augustine, for example, argues that human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, “the source of all that is true, good and beautiful.”

The American philosopher, William James, writing at the beginning the 20th century, described such an orientation to life and its meaning as the “belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Two centuries before William James, the other great account of human flourishing emerged in the West: humanism. While humanism rejected God and the the command to love God, it retained the moral obligation to love one’s neighbor. “The central pillar of its vision of the good life,” writes Volf, “was a universal beneficence transcending all boundaries of tribe and nation and extending to all human beings.”

But in our own time, both of the earlier accounts of life’s meaning and what it is to flourish as a human being have been eclipsed. “Having lost earlier reference to ‘something higher which humans should reverence or love,’ it [the West] now lost reference to universal solidarity as well. What remained was concern for the self and the desire for the experience of satisfaction.”

That may, in some ways, explain the Great Recession. Beneath it all lurks an addiction, an addiction to more, born of an emptiness in our collective soul. We lack an adequate story and corollary ethic.

Which takes us to Mick Jagger singing, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The problem with a bucket list approach to life and its meaning, with the idea that our satisfied self is our best hope, is not only that it is somehow petty, but worse, it doesn’t work. The nice new Toyota of our modest dreams is a source of dissatisfaction when a colleague’s pulls up in his shiny, new Beamer. “A dark shadow of disappointment stubbornly follows our obsession with personal satisfaction. We are meant to live for something larger than our own satisfied selves,” writes Volf.

This accounts for the way that, on Christmas morning after all the presents have been unwrapped, there may be a sense of disappointment, a sense of “is that all there is?” It accounts as well for the way sex for personal pleasure apart from love, however thrilling and exciting, leaves an aftertaste of dissatisfaction. It is meant for more. “For meaning-making animals as we humans ineradicably are, such desire to satisfy self-contained pleasures will always remain deeply unsatisfying,” concludes Volf.

My own boomer generation is not only facing the horizon of mortality, but more immediately the end of work and careers. While many, surely, will wrap up their work lives with relief, it remains true that work and jobs are a primary source of both meaning and relationships. Both endings, of work and of life, now raise important philosophical and ethical questions. Questions which, Volf argues, will not be adequately answered either with the prevailing dogma of “experiential satisfaction” or with the private catechism of one’s own bucket list.

The bad news, and the good news, is that we are meant for more.

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