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:

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.


  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.