My wife and I have been talking a lot lately about the future. We are now in our mid-sixties and, assuming we have another decade left together, we are wondering how to spend these years. We are lucky and privileged to have homes in the UK and Spain that we love, but we have done little travelling around the world together, and it is probably now or never. But the truth is neither of us feels any great need to travel the world. All travel entails discomfort and disruption and on the whole we are disinclined to undergo either for the dubious advantage of joining coachloads of other tourists gawping at what were once the great sights of the world but have now been reduced to overpriced, overvalued and overvisited tourist traps. So we don’t really have bucket lists. Apparently, we are all supposed to have one – places to see, experiences to have, before we shuffle off this mortal coil. But why? What is the point? For those with religious faith and the promise of an afterlife, I suppose there will be all of eternity to look back with pleasure on such things. But really, are a few fleeting tourist experiences in this life sufficient to fill an eternity of recollection and reflection? As an atheist, the problem is stark. If we are going to die sometime, and that will be the end of us, what is the point of bucket list experiences – we won’t be around to remember them. It is really just a small part of the bigger problem – what is the point of any experience at all if it all comes to a dead end – literally.
I guess the answer must be that the experience has a value in itself. And insofar as this implies the importance of living in the moment, I agree. When I look at the hordes of visitors, swarming around some icon of world tourism, obsessively clicking away with their cameras, I have to wonder about the quality of the experience itself. It is like modern weddings that seem to me to be designed to produce video and photographic records of an event that actually never happened – just staged to produce false memories. But living in the moment can’t be enough to transcend death’s destruction of all memories of such moments. I think the point of any life experience is about the degree to which it leaves a mark on the wider world. We can’t all be Darwins or Newtons – but we can spend our lives engaged in the great human endeavour to understand the universe and shape it for the greater good of all humanity. For most of us, the contribution will be small – to raise our kids well, and act in a morally responsible manner. But these things are more important than just ticking off a bucket list of meaningless, self centred experiences that do nothing other than fill in time and provide short-lived self gratification. Ironically, I think that the great religious thinkers would agree with that judgment. The point of life is to leave the world a better place, not to ransack its resources for short-lived self amusement. So, we may do some travelling – I really don’t know. But it won’t be just to tick off items on some bucket list of pointless experiences, and it won’t be at the expense of what really matters – whatever happens after we die.