Wondering About Lists And Why We Make Them

I can’t sleep, so I’m laying in bed doing the “awake and exhausted” thing and thinking about our society’s obsession with list-making. What initially sprang to mind was an image of the Lascaux cave paintings — I know this is random; remember I’m sleep deprived — and the thought, Oh, so what if instead of discovering this ethereal tumbling panorama of men and beasts, we found the something entirely different? Maybe a tumbling panorama of men and beasts, with the beasts checked off one-by-one, as if keeping score? Fourteen-thousand year old boxes and checkmarks lined up next to a group of hand-drawn gazelles. Excel for early man.

We love to make lists of things to do, of stages, of life events, of things to buy. (I don’t know if this is a global phenomenon, or culture-specific.) We’ve charted the five stages of grief, the five stages of sleep, and the top-ten most stressful life events. We make grocery lists, Christmas gift lists, hit lists. We count lovers, friends made and lost, homes bought and sold, moves, books and records and shoes (but not socks?) and televisions. You could even say we’ve made a list out of time — calendars, clocks ticking off seconds, minutes, and quarter-hours. Early clocks had one hand and noon was an approximation. A man challenged to a duel at high-noon was expected wait patiently for a few hours for his opponent, because perception of time was subjective. If you finished your tea and the other guy still hadn’t shown up, then you could pack up and go home, the de-facto winner.

How about the stages of grief? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. We mete out our heartbreak in doses, perhaps hoping that doing so will make it sufferable. I recently went through a breakup and ever since my friends have felt obliged to counsel me on which stage I’m currently phasing into or out of. But to me, it’s just one big lump of bad fucking news. Which, when I’m sitting in a dark bar brooding over a whiskey, I’ll try to sort out for myself by writing down a list of signs that she didn’t appreciate me anyway — the need to make sense of perceived senselessness. I assume that the breaker-upper probably made a similar mental list before doing the breaking up. (Curiously, this same individual once made a list of reasons to stop sleeping with men and start dating women. The list was written on the back of a bar tab.)

Maps are lists. Essentially, a system of lines over a grid, with intervals marked off. Or how about gradations of scale? That’s a list, too — a way to organize those distances on the map we’ve just made. Kids Hate Doing Math On Cloudy Mondays: kilometer hectometer decameter meter centimeter millimeter.

Obviously I could go on and on about this mundane yet strangely compelling subject, but I should probably get to my point. We’re obsessed with applying rigid systems to things that frequently defy the attempt. Time doesn’t exist and human behavior is confounding. So make a list and swallow it. A little bit of systematic religion to help us make sense of the world. It’s kind of cute that we do this — a mouse and maze thing — but I wonder if in the end it does more harm than good. Sometimes when we sit down and write it all out, top to bottom, what we come up with is more confusing than clarifying. What’s useful about trying to make a list of why love didn’t work? Once you reach the end of it, your heart still hurts.

* A friend just pointed me to SPIEGEL’s 11 Nov 09 interview with Umberto Eco on this very subject. Eco says, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” I feel kind of awesome that he and I are on similar wavelengths about this. Maybe we should have coffee?