#47: Do Something

Allison Shuman

August 1, 2010

“There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire…
Whence our lives come and where they go”

—Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life” (1852)

What do you want to do before you die? That sentence is part of the title sequence for MTV’s show (and my personal favorite), “The Buried Life.” Yes, it shares the airwaves with Snooki from “Jersey Shore” and Heidi Montag of “The Hills,” but before you write it off as just another half hour for the youth of America to demonstrate their ability to embarrass themselves, please let me explain. The show is a serial documentary about four young guys who have set out to cross off their list of “100 Things To Do Before I Die.” Each episode follows Jonnie, Dave, Ben and Duncan as they use any means possible to finish their list one item at a time. Along with the entertainment aspect of the show there is also a serious message: do something worthwhile with your life.

The adventure started for the guys long before the show was ever on MTV’s slate. Through different circumstances the four guys met together and started talking about how much they wanted to break free from the monotony of life’s daily tasks. Their consensus was that a life lived with no passion, excitement or accomplishment was just a waste of time. So in 2006, after attending college for a few years, the guys did some serious fundraising and spent the summer touring British Columbia in their first attempts to accomplish items on a list they had written together. They were able to check off 24 items, including #1: “Open the six o’clock news.” In late 2006 they were approached by MTV to do a documentary, but decided to wait until late 2009 to check off #53: “Start a television show.” At the beginning of every episode the narrator challenges viewers to ask themselves, “If you had one day left to live what would you do? … Now if you had a whole life to live, would you lose that drive, or would your list just keep getting longer?” The entire show is flavored by this challenge: each day should be viewed as a wide-open opportunity.

What do you want to do before you die? Just that simple statement suggests that someday each one of our lives will come to an end. This startling, yet paradoxically obvious statement requires that we come to terms with the fact that we are mortal — we will die. With this knowledge that life is temporary comes a force that either makes us panic or pushes us forward to grasp whatever we can in the present, making every day count. Often, when we consider which simple things we want most in life, the deepest desires of our soul begin to surface. For some people the most important thing is a life of adventure, characterized by physical pursuits like climbing Mount Everest. For others life is measured in the mind’s strength, so they pursue mental feats like discovering a new mathematical proof or the cure for cancer. Life convictions are personal, so the standard for a “suitable” bucket list simply does not exist. Every person on earth has a different purpose and pursuit that, in turn, direct their life goals. So the question “what do you want to do before you die?” becomes synonymous with “what is your life’s purpose?”

Sometimes accomplishing just the simple life goals is not so easy as touring in a bus and checking things off the list, even for the guys from “The Buried Life.” No strangers to disappointment, several of the items on their agenda did not go as planned, like #95: “Play ball with Obama.” After contacting members of Congress and even hanging out at the YMCA where one of Obama’s aides plays ball, things looked like they were falling into place. But in the end, the guys had to abandon their quest: the White House politely told the four, thanks for asking but no can do. As a viewer I was disappointed, but when a bucket list is full of such ambitious goals some measure of defeat is realistically expected. When asked on their website about how they determine if an item can be checked off, the guys replied, “If we’re satisfied with our attempt, or it’s clear that we have achieved our goal, then we’ll knock an item off the list.” It seems that sometimes we have to be content just participating in the journey of pursuing the goal, where fulfillment lies in the attempt.

In the process of pursuing goals, who is to say that what is accomplished is actually “worthwhile”? Plenty of people in the present and past have demonstrated great power and ambition, including the likes of Adolf Hitler and William M. “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall. What separates meaningful ambition from an awful accomplishment? Although there is no set standard for a “suitable” list, there are certainly guidelines for unsuitable goals; one qualification is there must be something more than just working towards personal fulfillment. For a similar reason, the 2007 film “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, did poorly at the box office. The movie followed two men as they used their “last days” to do the outrageous things that they always dreamed of doing. While it showed some redeeming qualities like the importance of family relationships, overall it was just too frivolous. This may be common sense to some, but the movie confirmed that simply doing unusual things does not constitute an accomplished, worthwhile life.

If the guys on “The Buried Life” had made their mission to simply check things off their list, their show probably would not have risen much higher than any other shallow MTV reality. Bungee jumping, party crashing, street walking and other such activities hardly qualify as purposedriven, meaningful pursuits. However, the guys realized that ultimate satisfaction comes not from pursuing your own desires, but from inspiring others and benefitting them with your talents and time. For every item that they cross off their list, they help someone else with an item on theirs. One episode they helped a young woman who lost her mom to disease after Hurricane Katrina find her mother’s gravesite in Colorado. To help her accomplish this goal, all four guys worked a night at a local restaurant and donated the money towards her plane ticket to Colorado. One of history’s most brilliant, accomplished minds, Albert Einstein, once said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” The important thing is not to be famous, rich or happy, but to have made a difference in someone’s life. Their selfless action demonstrated that the important thing in life is to make a connection with a value greater than yourself: a spiritual relationship, familial bond or maybe an encounter with nature. The true buried life is finding passion and meaning in life by living each day in a way that matters, using valuable time to make today better, not just for ourselves but for the people around us.

In a practical way, keeping a bucket list helps give a clear picture of both the present and the future, as well as a record of the past. You see what matters most to you in life: what directs you not only today but also in your steps toward tomorrow. When you look at it broadly, a bucket list is a sort of roadmap, detailing stops along the journey — a series of steps that one hopes to take in a fulfilled life. There is encouragement in what you have already accomplished and hope in a future full of meaning and personal value. I keep my own “buried list,” full of personal goals both mundane and extraordinary. Inspired by “The Buried Life,” I’ve been looking at my list and beginning to check things off (including most recently #23: Go downhill skiing). Even if it’s something small, accomplishing one of my goals helps me feel like I’m unearthing my passion and reminds me to live each day in a way that matters. What do you want to do before you die?

Allison Shuman is a junior from Mentor, Ohio, majoring in History and Business Administration.