Before I die

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2014 15 Sep

“Before I die I want to ______.”

How would you fill in the blank?

It’s a haunting question, one that challenges everyone who passes by one of the hundreds of walls from Beijing to Brooklyn emblazoned with that hanging statement.

Artist Candy Chang created the first wall in 2011 after the loss of a loved one. Following an extended period of grief, Chang stenciled a grid with the words “Before I die I want to ____” on the side of an abandoned building (with the owner’s permission) in her neighborhood. Her hope was that the wall would help her to reflect on what is important and cause others to pause and share what matters most to them.

And share they have.

The walls

In four years, thousands of people have jotted their “bucket list” items on over 500 walls in 30 languages and 70 countries. Photos of the walls are posted on Chang’s website, where many of the entries can be read.

As one might expect, the want-tos range from the frivolous (“get a tattoo”) to the fanciful (“end poverty”); from the prankish (“punch a clown”) to the profound (“invent something”); from the horrific (“witness a murder”) to the heartrending (“forget what it feels like to take a life”); and from the puerile (“not be a virgin”) to the poignant (“reconnect with my dad”).

Most express a desire for experiences and accomplishments, like “meet Justin Bieber,” “go to Fiji,” “learn French,” or “skydive” (numerous entries). Others, many others, express the longing to be happy or find love or to become a star, millionaire, or professional athlete. On a wall at a church in my hometown, entries include “buy a boat,” “marry my partner,” and “be cured” (of?).

Few betray the desire for a change in behavior or character, as does this refreshing example: “love and serve my wife unconditionally.”

A curious visitor

That said, there is nothing wrong with most of these things. Many are decent and well-intentioned, some admirable and praiseworthy, and most, I suspect—even the “buy a boat” variety—reflect a deep existential yearning.

Yet an extraterrestrial happening upon these walls might easily conclude that earthlings have no higher aspirations than to accumulate stuff, have experiences, and achieve emotional satisfaction during their fourscore existence.

If our E.T. were prompted to observe how we actually live, I fear his impression would be largely unaffected. And if he were further prompted to delve into our past, he would learn how little we’ve changed over the course of history. He might even come across the autobiography of a king whose catalog of achievements exceeded the ambitions of all but the most outlandish bucket lists scrawled on those 500-plus walls. Continue reading here.