“The secret self knows the anguish of our attachments and assures us that letting go of what we think we must have to be happy is the same as letting go of our unhappiness.”
– Guy Finley
The Academy Bridge in Venice, Italy is one of only four bridges that span the Grand Canal. It’s a footbridge, really, a 1985 replica of the 1933 replacement of the original 1854 bridge. Its rails and cables drip with thousands of small metal padlocks inscribed with male and female names. My son asked me what they were for. I told him I didn’t know. Later research proved they are “love locks,” fastened onto renowned locations about the city by lovesick youth as a sort of benign graffiti. The Venetian police are cracking down on the tradition. Further evidence why Paris is the city of love, not Venice.
I didn’t realize this until later but the Academy Bridge, or Ponte dell’Accademia, is one of the most photographed locations on the planet. It shares company with the Moulin Rouge in Paris and another Italian bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence. This came to my attention soon after visiting Italy when I stumbled across a CNN.com article about Panoramio, Google’s “geolocation-oriented photo-sharing website.” This site quantifies the number of photographs posted for given locations about the world.
Looking back on my experience at the Academy Bridge I’m not surprised to discover that it’s one of the most photographed sites. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it also has that “site of significance” air about it. It’s crowded, for one, and relentlessly so. The trail of international visitors stretching across its boards is unrelenting. And then, of course, there are the photographs. There is a difference between taking a picture because a moment is memorable and taking a picture because it’s supposed to be taken. This is commonplace at sites that are famous for being famous. You’re not going to go to the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Grand Canyon and not take a picture, or two…or twenty.
As I stood at this location, after taking my own set of photographs (I just counted them and there are eleven), I reflected on the maddening crush of humanity. I calculated its sources statistically, economically, and culturally. Statistically, since there are over seven billion people in the world today, it would only make sense that a site like this would be so packed. Economically, the growth of middle classes in emerging countries would fuel this population to travel to places such as this. But as a Westerner, particularly an American, I couldn’t help but place significance on the role of culture in this mass of people, particularly the role of the “bucket list.”
A bucket list, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a list of activities a person wants to engage in before he or she dies, or “kicks the bucket.” There was a popular movie staring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman by this same title back in 2007. Many of us have our own bucket lists, whether they are written down or just float around in the backs of our heads. Many of us have a list of hopes, dreams, and accomplishments we wish to fulfill before we are too old or incapable to do so, a list of hopes, dreams, and accomplishments that if left unfulfilled may leave an unendurable void in our hearts later in life.
Taking my family to Italy was one such bucket-list item. I had been there 17 years earlier with my wife on our honeymoon. To return with our brood was something that was both poetic and meaningful to me and would hopefully be the same to my wife and two children. But a thought entered my head as I stood there beside my son staring at all of these people who had spent days and precious financial resources getting to this location – are any of us any happier now that we have checked this item off of our lists?
Obviously, I cannot answer this question for other people. I can only answer it for myself. My answer is yes, but not for the obvious reasons. Why this moment meant something to me was not because it was in Italy or because it was at the Academy Bridge but instead because my son was standing next to me, because my son noticed something in our field of view that I had given fleeting significance, and because my son turned to me to help make meaning out of what he saw.
For this to have happened my son and I could have been anywhere, as we often are together. It was my connection to him that proved significant, not the location or the act. Which makes me wonder about the nature of my own bucket list, or that of others. How much of our bucket lists are comprised of distant experiences or accomplishments that we assume will make us happy once we do them but instead either prove meaningless in the end or, because of our fixation on them, interfere with what will ultimately prove most meaningful: connection with significant people in our lives?
Bonnie Ware is an Australian singer/songwriter who worked for a time with terminally ill men and women, comforting them until their last moments of life. First she wrote an article and then a book that outlined the top five regrets expressed by the dying. They are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
When I read these items I experience a number of emotions. The first one is a bit of relief. At least now I know the secret to life! At least now I know for what I should be striving! Another emotion is panic. My God, I had better hurry to do these things! I had better make the most of what I have now so that I don’t regret so much when I die! A final emotion, perhaps the strongest, is regret (ironically). How many times have I made major life decisions to please other people? How many times have I broken off friendships and fought with those whom I love the most when I should have built bridges? How many times was I not able to stand in a moment and let it be what it was instead of obsessing over what it could have been?
I guess it all depends on how you view your bucket list, or of what it is comprised, that will determine whether it brings you fulfillment or regret. If your bucket list is about authenticity, a lightness of being, freedom of self-expression, and friendship there is a greater chance that pursuing it will bring you happiness. But if your bucket list is about outer appearances, accomplishments, avoidance of emotions, or isolation then it’s destined to bring quite the opposite.
We live in a society that is increasingly focused on fulfilling, and flaunting, individual accomplishments. The idea of the bucket list has fostered a sort of mad dash to catalogue life and experiences. Not everyone is like this, of course. I know quite a few people who simply live their lives in a healthy balance between fulfilling personal desires and contributing to community. But it is worth noting when and if there are times in which our desire to fulfill our bucket list items isn’t about authenticity and connection but about bragging rights.
I can’t help but think of social media in this regard. For me social media teeters between being the ultimate networking platform, connecting us in a fractured world, and a grotesque distillation of humankind’s desperate yearning for attention, fracturing us in what could otherwise be a connected world. Again, it’s with what kind of attitude you approach social media that will determine on which side of the spectrum you are.
There are times in which I log onto Facebook, for instance, and I become depressed. I know I am not the only one for whom this is an occurrence. There have already been a few studies conducted on the connection between social media and depression. The conclusion being that in viewing the representations of other people’s lives we tend to compare their perceived accomplishments, attainments, and happiness to our own and often arrive at the conclusion that we are not as successful, valuable, or happy as they are. We then become depressed.
For those struggling with addiction a quick hop over to our substance of abuse will not only give us the illusion of inclusion, but also numb our depression in the process. Some of this depression, or at least isolation and loneness, is caused by how we approach social media and some of it is the inherent nature of how people, us included, use social media and what they post.
If we approach other people’s lives with the attitude of comparison instead of connection our emotional states will be endlessly coupled with our perceptions of their lives and we’ll be on an emotional roller coaster, feeling better than them some days and less than them other days. The tragedy of this process becomes more evident if we can really sit down and grasp the reality that what people post on social media is a micro-thin layer of their reality, and that micro-thin layer is almost always of their best light. Gone are the secret behaviors, the compulsions, the arguments with friends and family, and, ironically, their own depression caused by comparing themselves to others.
In the end, we can only control ourselves which includes what we chose to bring into our lives, how we chose to perceive what we bring into our lives, and what we want to put out there into the world. No one’s life is perfect, no matter how many wonderful bucket-list items they – or we – fulfill and present to the world.
Ware’s “regrets of the dying” act as a powerful guide in this process. If in looking at other people’s lives we are after connection instead of competition, inclusion rather than isolation, we are much more capable of happiness and joy, and less regret later in life. Even if the lives others present are either their best selves or flat out fabrications, celebration of whatever we see will lead more to open channels of human connection. In celebrating someone’s presentation of themselves, instead of competing, we may soften the other person’s resolve and open a pathway for them to trust us enough to share their real pain. Believe me on this. As a community leader it has happened more times than I can count when I have reached out to someone in response to their sparkling posts only to discover that beneath this veneer of light is the darkness of isolation, loneliness, and often addiction.
This works both ways, of course. What we post in the social media realm has ramifications far beyond what we can possibly comprehend. With this realization can accompany the spiritual practice of “mindful posting,” a practice from which we could all benefit. Before posting, ask yourself these questions:
- Why am I posting this?
- Is this post meant to aggrandize myself (make me look better than I am) or to share?
- Am I presenting a false self in this post?
- How will other people experience what I post?
- What pain may I be inflicting on the world if I post this?
- Conversely, what joy will I be sharing with the world if I post this?
Oftentimes we post our accomplishments because we want to share. But if we dig deeper we may find that part of our desire to post is to compete and gloat and maybe even prove to ourselves that we are worth what we are worth. And what of our pain? We all have it. Cannot that be something we share too? And in doing so will that not accomplish more of what we are discussing in terms of bucket lists than if we only post our great accomplishments? Sharing pain can bring great connection.
As an act of mindfulness I make an effort to post on my Facebook page parts of myself that are not so great, not so wonderful. Again, mindfulness is key. Am I posting this to get sympathy from people from whom it’s best not to or am I posting to ease people’s suffering – mine included – by demonstrating my own humanity? To be honest, posts such as “This is the first day of the rest of your life” or “Get busy living or get busy dying” only stress me out. But when I read posts that explore the difficultly of life, I often feel more connected to others in our shared humanity.
“Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in his classic The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we really know that life is difficult, once we understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
I love reading quotes like this on social media. For me they arrest the millions of bouncing and battering balls that represent ideas, attainments, accomplishments, motion, and speed and settle them to the ground so that I can breathe.
About two years ago I stumbled across a quote by a philosopher and writer named Guy Finley. To be honest, I don’t know which book it comes from, probably The Secret of Letting Go. It reads: “The secret self knows the anguish of our attachments and assures us that letting go of what we think we must have to be happy is the same as letting go of our unhappiness.”
I’ve read this sentence at least a hundred times. Every time I read it I’m struck by how much I have to concentrate and contemplate its meaning before grasping it. And even then my comprehension is fleeting. It helps me to paraphrase: what we think will make us happy once we attain or accomplish it ironically makes us unhappy because we believe that the only way we can be happy is once we attain or accomplish it. If we just had the presence of mind to let go of our desires for these things we would discover that our happiness is already within us – if we chose to let it be.
This concept not only ties in with how we respond to and use social media but also the whole notion of bucket lists in general. What makes us think that if we had the lives or attainments of other people – careers, marriages, singleness, children, freedom, houses – we would be any happier than what we are now? And what makes us think that if we have other people’s acceptance, approval, or envy we will be much happier than we are now? Furthermore, what makes us think that once we achieve our bucket list items we will be any happier than we are now?
Again, apparently it’s not about what we check off our bucket lists that matter but how we check them off. If our bucket list items allow us to be our authentic selves, take life lightly, express our emotions, connect us with others, and be happy within ourselves then the bucket list item was worth its while. In truth, letting go of our bucket lists or holding onto them loosely, having them but not relying on them, is the great spiritual practice. If we spend our lives thinking that happiness is somewhere else, having done something else, that others are living more fully than we are, or that life is just the accumulation of experiences then we are less destined for happiness. In this way, happiness, if it’s attainable at all, is just an object on the horizon to which we will never arrive.
As Peck noted, life is difficult. Having goals and aspirations without letting them destroy you is difficult. But this is the artistry of living. Thankfully, Ware provides a wonderful framework for how this can be done. And once we learn that life is difficult – for everyone – it may become less so.
In the midst of all that was going on at the Academy Bridge, including my own obsessive thoughts, if it weren’t for my son’s very innocent and curious question about the “love locks” I could have missed the whole point of being there. Thank God for children. As Christ said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (LK 18:17). The Kingdom is both present and future, but I can’t do much about the future. I can do something about the present, and quite frequently, it’s to let it just be.