The year after Kathy retired following three decades of teaching English at the university, she published her fifth novel and ran her tenth marathon. She celebrated the birth of her second grandchild and paid off her mortgage. One early morning as we plodded toward Matheson Hammock to watch the sun rise, she reflected on how keeping score by these milestones left her feeling uneasy and unfulfilled.
"I write with discipline," she opined. "Especially since I stopped teaching. I start every morning at nine, half an hour for lunch, and keep at it until three."
Our group of a dozen sweaty runners stopped telling jokes to listen. Kathy seldom stopped telling old jokes with the rest of our group to speak seriously about her life. "I'm never going to create a verse comparable."
"Comparable to what?" Elena asked.
Kathy half recited, half sang:
'Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin' easily,
I am older than I once was and younger than I'll be,
That's not unusual. No it isn't strange,
After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.
After changes, we are more or less the same.'
"Paul Simon has articulated more in a few lines than I did in a 300-page book. If I live to be a hundred, I'm never going to write anything that good."
"How do you know how Paul Simon feels about what he has written?" Elena asked. "For all we know, he has a dark three a.m. of the soul as well. Remember, he also wrote,"
'And a song I was writing is left undone,
I don't know why I spend my time,
Writing songs I can't believe,
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.'
"Well, he does have adoring fans, piles of money, and more awards than he can count," Kathy said.
Ah," replied Elena, "maybe he's using the wrong yardstick too."
The eight of us stopped at the water fountain then walked over to look out over the bay. Elena mentioned Robin Williams--brilliant, talented, successful, adored.
And dead by his own hand.
Could his yardstick have been imperfect as well?
A number of us in the running group make our livelihoods and our lives creatively. We play music or make art; we create books, write grants, invent ideas.
We would do well to feel good about our accomplishments for ourselves independent of how many books we sell or where we finish in our age group in a running event.
The number of Americans who have run sub 2:10 marathons is 12. The number of Kenyans who have run sub 2:10 marathons is 37.
In 2012, a Kenyan who ran a sub 2:04 marathon didn't even make their Olympic team.
Keep in mind that a 2:10--never mind 2:04--marathon is running a quarter mile in 75 seconds. Then running another quarter miles in 75 seconds.
Then running 103 more quarter miles at 75 seconds.
No one you know has ever run more than a few consecutive 75-second quarter miles. It is entirely likely that no one you currently know could run one quarter mile in 75 seconds never mind 105 of them.
Stated another way, you could take a taxi cab to the 26th mile marker of a major marathon, jump out and join the race, and still lose.
Trying to be the best that someone else can be is a stupid criterion for attaining a shot at happiness and positive self-regard.
So why in the name of everything that is good and decent in the world are you forcing this horrific nonsense--that happiness comes with accomplishment--on your beloved children? If Kathy doesn't feel good about having published three books, do you think she would feel better about having written four? If having finished ten marathons doesn't give her a sense of accomplishment and contentment, do you think she would feel better about having run 11? How about 20? How about 100?
Wouldn't it make infinitely more sense to allow your children to be who they are, make their own way, find their own meaning? Don't you think that they're more likely to feel good about themselves from just doing the best they can, making a contribution, being who they are? Wouldn't you like them to feel good about themselves even if they never run a sub 2:10 marathon?
Isn't feeling good about giving it their best shot a better--and more likely--objective?
To hear Kathy beat herself up because she isn't as brilliant, wealthy, and famous as Paul Simon is shameful. Let's all try to help our kids accept themselves for who they are, not for what they can do.
Harvard University rather than North Cornstalk College, five novels rather than three, 20 marathons rather than 10, a 2:10 marathon rather than a 4:10.
Having done the best you can rather than doing the best of anybody is a first step in avoiding the madness.
Because the list of what your kids are not going to be the best at is as long as life is short.