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: