The Lists We Keep and the Meaning of Life


“Everyone has a list and everyone is on someone’s list.” I heard this from a musician, speaking of himself and his 100 orchestral colleagues. The statement reminded me of the 1971 “Enemies List” kept by President Richard Nixon’s assistant Charles Colson, naming Nixon’s biggest political and public opponents. He even included the movie actor Paul Newman. I suspect, however, those of us who make lists like this don’t actually intend to meddle and damage other lives, as Nixon did by means of Internal Revenue Service audits and the like. Fortunately, the IRS Commissioner Donald C. Alexander refused to do the President’s dirty-work.

Our catalogues of people and things are usually more benign. Here are a few:

  • Shopping lists.
  • To-do lists.
  • Bucket lists. I always wonder about this one. Postponing gratification is useful to get ahead in life, but assumes there will be life ahead, and the kind of health permitting joy in the delayed experiences. Anyone over 50 will tell you not to postpone too many activities. The things of youth belong to their time. Any athlete past his prime can affirm this. Down the road, the bucket springs some leaks and will not hold the treats we put in it.
  • Lists of lovers. I recall a conversation with an old friend and somehow it came up that he’d slept with about 50 women in his long life. He wasn’t bragging, but his production of a number suggests he counted them. In fact, in the opera Don Giovanni (Don Juan) by Mozart, the composer gave us something called “The Catalogue Aria,” sung by his servant Leporello. Here is how it begins:

My dear lady, this is the list
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.

In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three …

I leave it to the reader to come up with the proper (?) response to this.

  • Lists of medications. The tally is created by older people, of necessity, because new specialist physicians need to avoid prescribing drugs likely to produce a dangerous interaction with those already in the system.
  • Lists of jobs (a résumé).
  • Lists of publications. Academics are judged by their number of writings, the excellence of the journals or books in which they appear, and the extent to which their work generates further scholarship from other authors and researchers.
  • “Ten best” lists. News and entertainment media enjoy ranking athletes, movie stars, and places to go. Of course, you can make your own.
  • Lists of employees, those who sign up for a course, etc.
  • A catalogue of life unfairness and injury. Those who routinely recite these (we all know at least one such friend) is someone whose presence can only occasionally be tolerated.
  • A similar list of grudges.
  • A short list of regrets — the big ones. Some of us keep circling our thoughts back to a handful of actions we ought to have done or not done. Interestingly, research suggests men are more likely to kick themselves about the chances they didn’t take with the fair sex (the woman not pursued, the opportunities bypassed), while the ladies reflect on relationships they chose with the wrong men.
  • Lists of things for which we are grateful. Not everyone has a list of this kind, but the benefits can be considerable if you review and remember the items.
  • Mental lists of subjects to talk about on a date. Young men often create these for fear of running out of topics of conversation.
  • The things you can’t do anymore and the parts that hurt. Older folks, without much pressure, can tell you and tell you — and tell you.

Lists tend to fall into categories. Those that are practical and helpful (to-do and grocery), achievement (publications and lovers, the latter if you are a braggart), tales of woe (the times you’ve been dumped and jobs lost), etc.

We probably are better off with fewer lists, other than those involving gratitude or producing a sense of fulfillment. List making, beyond what is necessary, doesn’t get you too engaged in the world in front of you, unless it includes actions you intend and a plan to carry them out. You need a method for your new year’s resolution madness, for sure.

Holding grudges doesn’t make you feel better, while creating a list of conversations topics for a date might. Remember, past a certain indeterminate age, we tend to enjoy telling stories about good old days. The best advice, perhaps, is to experience as many of those days as you can, not only to enjoy them in the moment, but bank them for fond remembrance later.

We often look for a cognitive lightning bolt, an epiphany, or a turning point to change our lives: “If only I do this or try that, then I will be transformed and fulfilled.” Or maybe you say, “These five things are what I need,” as if the check-offs on your list are both necessary and sufficient — a guarantee of happiness. Ah, but perhaps you will think of one more to achieve and then one more still when the last one is done. There is no end to the number of awards to attain, money to bank, and places to see.

I wonder if sometimes we miss the simplest things, forgetting to put them on the paper with the tangible wish list. Our feverish pursuit of goals — intent upon grasping and holding each one we touch — suggests a permanence not present in life. We believe once we grab them they will assuage all discontent. Are we like dazed and thirsty souls in the desert who see an oasis ahead, not recognizing it is a mirage instead?

Meanwhile, those simplest things cost us nothing and bestow what we all want: to live well. Yet they are easily lost in the overheated tumult of life and the mind-numbing routine of the day.

As Jack Palance said to Billy Crystal in the 1991 movie City Slickers, the secret of happiness (if there is one) all comes down to “one thing.”

What is that “one thing?” Watch:

8 thoughts on “The Lists We Keep and the Meaning of Life

  1. That long list of lovers is making me feel exceedingly tired! 😉
    But I wonder if you have any advice on banking memories? I worry so much about forgetting – many things, many moments, the phrases and insights of therapy….how do we bank those things? I’ve been wondering yet again if I should be making g notes after every session, but time energy and lack of will are all factors. I go over things in my head and certain aspects end up in posts – but what about tjose wonderful moments of comfort or laughter or interaction, what about the precise words? I’m so worried my memory banks will be empty and that there will be nothing tangible to recollect….I know that too many attempts to record life can interfere with living life, but what if I’m not doing enough recording ti ensure I have something to relive, later?……
    Thank you for another interesting and thought provoking post 🙂


  2. Memory pretty much takes care of itself for the most emotionally powerful events. My point with respect to memory was to live in such a way that you have a life rich in love, friendship, learning and experience. If you do that, recollection will probably not be a problem.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I notice that my relationship with lists has changed as I have gotten older. I don’t make them as much anymore. None of them. Most of my lists fall in the practical vein. My daily/weekly/monthly/semester to-do list was the critical list while employed. There actually was something very satisfying about crossing things off the list (as I was crossing the days off my life but let’s not talk about that right now…). Certainly I had a resume and was always interested in building that until I was no longer interested in building it (that point came about ten years before I actually retired). Bucket list? Never. The grocery list has always been critical b/c I hate not having something in the house when I want to consume it! There are so many doors that have closed and things that I can’t do anymore but there are also more and more things that I am discovering that I CAN do now that I don’t go to an office every day. But I don’t make lists about them. I just do them. In the same way, I don’t make lists of things for which to be grateful. I just am.
    I’m not sure I agree with Jack Palance (or I don’t understand his point – also quite possible). What is the one thing? What? You’re supposed to choose one thing around which to center your life? And each person chooses that? Maybe that’s it. Family has always been my personal number one (family of origin and/or family I created) but I will also say my adult life was focused on my work. I cared a great deal about the students, parents, and staff that were part of my school community (no matter which school at which I was working at the time) and I would say that my life also centered on them. But, I guess, family did always come first….I know some people who put God (in whatever image is their own at the top) and I suppose others do put acquisition of money or toys at the top (or lovers, as you noted) – whatever. Frankly, I am satisfied with my top two – but I miss my work and have yet to find out how to center things now that it has gone away. Maybe I need to make a list of possibilities! (JK!)


  4. Apart from the great point, I was just happy to see that someone else still remembers Charles Colson and Nixon’s Enemies List! I just saw on the secondary “Enemies List,” Carol Channing was included! For the full list:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d forgotten (or maybe never knew) about the second list. I’m sure Carol Channing was a pretty big threat. 😉 For doing bad jokes, perhaps? Thanks, Harry.


  5. “Meanwhile, those simplest things cost us nothing and bestow what we all want: to live well.”
    ~ So true, Dr. Stein. Those who gain from selling us dreams would like us to believe otherwise.


  6. Thanks, Rosaliene. It is true the sellers are working as hard as they can. On the other hand, I think they target our vulnerabilities pretty well. And those dreams are, I believe, hard-wired into the species. I will write more about this soon, so thanks for the prompt.


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