On the top shelf of my bookcase, sandwiched between a "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" and Machiavelli's "The Prince", sits a collection of five little books. It's a Rough Guide series titled "Ultimate Experiences", and it was a gift from Vodafone, believe it or not (my partner Greg was also encouraged to choose a gift: he chose to plant a couple of trees, presumably to replace the paper my books consumed).
The "Ultimate Experiences" are broken up into Journeys, Wonders of the World, Wildlife Adventures, Ethical Travel and World Food, and there are 25 of each. I may have failed Year 12 Maths B, but I believe I remember enough of the "multiplication" process to work out that equates to 125 "Ultimate Experiences". I've been through the books, and managed to tick off six of the Wonders of the World, six of the World Food, and 1 of the Journeys. There's a couple of the local Wildlife Adventures that I could include (spotting platypuses in Australia and kiwis in New Zealand) that I could include at a stretch. Plus I've been through the West Highlands of Scotland, just not on a train as the Journeys one suggests. So, at a stretch, that's 15-and-a-half "Ultimate Experiences" that I've had. Out of 125. Seems a bit, well, depressingly low.
It got me thinking about those "Things to Do Before You Die" lists, and whether they're really as motivating as they're supposed to be, or just a gloomy reminder of the brevity of life, and how we're probably not going to get around to a lot of stuff during it.
Let's face it. These kind of lists are a pretty self-indulgent creation of modern affluent Western societies. I doubt you'll see much mention of them before the turn of the 20th century, and even then they were members of the British or American elite, coupled with the odd adventurer/nutjob. I can imagine for most people living in times of old, their "Things to Do Before I Die" list might look more like this:
1. Eat food.
2. Get money.
3. Make it to 30.
Come to think of it, that list is still relevant for hundreds of thousands of people living today. All in all, we're fairly fortunate to live in a sphere where we can give SERIOUS thought to activities beyond basic survival. I'm not trying to slam us for being wastrel Westerners, but really, going to a Death by Chocolate night does sound a bit indulgent by comparison.
There seem to be two components to these types of Lists. There's the "OMG this place/experience is so awesome you will never understand life, the universe and everything until you have seen it/done it/had it/bought the T-shirt". These are normally your big-budget travel items like trekking the Appalachians, camel-riding in the Sahara, seeing an opera at La Scala or visiting Graceland to see Elvis' death toilet. While I have many of these on a wish-list, it's unrealistic of me to think I'll achieve every one. I'll just keep prioritising until a lack of health, wealth or alive-ness stops me. But for many people, these simply aren't affordable, or even desirable. For some, their best-ever vacation might come from a family trip to the Sunshine Coast.
The second category within the List is "Fairly Ordinary Things We Do Reasonably Regularly and Include So We Can Feel Better About Not Doing More of Category A". These are things like planting a tree, throwing a party for a friend, having a pet etc etc. Wow - I didn't realise learning to juggle was worthy of inclusion on my tombstone! "Here lies Natalie/Boy, was she good at quoting Blackadder". Surely these things are just a part of life, to be experienced as and where possible, as and where desired? It's like Scene Selection being listed as a "Special Feature" on DVDs. I'm sorry, but, no. It's just a part of the entire viewing experience.
If I honestly had to come up with a list of ten things I'd like to achieve by, let's say, my 30th birthday (because that albatross is beginning to circle my neck like a garotte), it would be something like this:
1. Not die.
2. Be a good person, and well-liked (including by myself).
3. Continue to have good relationships with my family and friends.
4. Travel frickin' anyway I frickin' can.
5. Be good and get better at what I do, career-wise and acting/improv wise.
6. Earn more money.
7. Develop a new skill (like a language or Photoshop or something)
8. Become techno-savvy.
9. Continue to build an awesome DVD collection.
10. Lose 10 kilos.
I reckon at least the first three would make almost everyone's top ten list.
While I can see the benefit in writing down your goals, and setting timetables to achieve them, I don't believe they should be bookended by Death. It's kind of like my ongoing promises to lose weight. "I swear to drop 5 kilos before my high school reunion. I swear to be a size 12 by the end of the year". I'm just setting myself up for failure. Think about your goals, list them, keep track of your progress - but don't become obsessed by "ticking" things off. You might be so obsessed with achieving your list, that you miss a wonderful opportunity to do something else you had never imagined.
Cecil Rhodes, the famed British businessman, diamond fancier and "empire builder" (ie, he killed a lotta Africans) is reported to have said on his deathbed, aged 48 - " so litte done, so much to do" . This from a guy who gave his name to a country, established a scholarship program that would allow future Prime Ministers of Australia to sink piss in Oxford for years to come, and took home more bling than Elizabeth Taylor after Oscars night. If after everything he's done, he's still feeling regrets, what hope do the rest of us have?
Life is a quilt in progress. Every moment is a piece of patchwork. I'm hoping mine will be a Bayeux Tapestry - which, by the way, is on my list of "Things to See Before I'm Too Old to Understand Medieval French"...
Based on a suggestion from Renee.