Some years ago, Judith Viorst wrote a book of poems entitled: How did I get to be 40 & other atrocities. One of the poems, “Self-Improvement Program,” reads like this:

I’ve finished sic pillows in Needlepoint,
And I’m reading Jane Austen and Kant,
And I’m up to pork with black beans in Advanced Chinese Cooking.
I don’t have to struggle to find myself
For I already know what I want.
I want to be healthy and wise and extremely good-looking.

I’m learning new glazes in Pottery Class,
And I’m playing new chords in guitar.
And in Yoga I’m starting to master the lotus position.
I don’t have to ponder priorities
For I already know what they are:
To be good-looking, healthy, and wise.
And adored in addition.

I’m improving my serve with a tennis pro,
And I’m practising verb forms in Greek,
And in Primal Scream Therapy all my frustrations are vented.
I don’t have to ask what I’m searching for
Since I already know that I seek
To be good-looking, healthy, and wise.
And adored.
And contented.

I’ve bloomed in Organic Gardening,
And in Dance I have tightened my thighs,
and in Consciousness Raising there’s no one around who can top me.
And I’m working all day and I’m working all night
To be good-looking, healthy, and wise.
And adored.
And contented.
And brave.
And well-read.
And a marvelous hostess,
Fantastic in bed,
And bilingual,
Won’t someone please stop me?

Won’t someone please stop me? From what? From spending all of my time and energy, my life, cancerously chasing an ideal which says that to be happy, acceptable, marketable, and worthwhile, I must be athletic, artistic, well-read, good-looking, an expert dancer, a seasoned traveler, trilingual, the model parent, the over-achieving professional, the poet who smells the flowers and writes about them, the most committed social justice advocate on the planet, a gourmet cook, and a person who has friends at the top and friends at the bottom, has limitless time for all of them, and yet is, at the same time, a person who comes out of a deep solitude.

The expectations of our culture, both written and unwritten, give us quite a job description. When we try to meet them, and we spend much of our lives trying, we end up constantly overtired, over-extended, disappointed, and feeling deeply inadequate. Only we know—and we rarely admit this fully even to our most intimate friends—the cost, the price we pay to somehow measure up, too look right, to have the correct curriculum vitae, so that we are seen as ”good-looking, healthy, and wise.”

Ultimately, we would all like to be introduced like this:

“Allow me to introduce to you Mary Doe-Rodriguez. Mary has her doctorate in psychology and religious studies from Harvard. After this she spent three years doing post-graduate work at the Jungian Institute in Switzerland. She has published four books and over 60 articles. She teaches one semester a year at the University of Chicago and spends the second semester in Peru where she is collaborating with various liberation theologians vis-à-vis the linkages between Third World and First World oppressions.

“Her weekends are spent teaching handicapped adults and working with the mothers of the disappeared. She serves on seven different commissions, including the president’s committee on ecology, the bishops’ committee on the status of women, and the international theological commission on the renewal of liturgy. She is also a consultant for Green Peace. Beyond this, she is actively involved in her own community, is a member of her parish council, and heads a group that has started a food bank within the inner city. However her real passion is her family. She is happily married, the mother of three children, does all her own cooking, sews all her own clothes, and plays tennis and squash every day… and by looking at how well she has kept herself up, you would never guess she is already 34 years old!”

In our culture curriculum vitae is everything, it’s far more important to be adored and admired than to be happy. It’s also impossible and depressing and hopelessly tiring to try to measure up.

Dan Berrigan, in his autobiography, describes a recurring nightmare. In it, he sees himself walking a road, underneath a resplendent red rug unrolls ahead of him. This part of the dream feels good. However, when he glances behind, he sees that the rug is rolling up, mysteriously, right at his heels. He must break into a smart trot to stay ahead. This becomes a tiring enterprise with no promise of rest.

When most of our energies have to go into simply measuring up, life does become a tiring enterprise with an unhappy ending for, as the Orphic myths (in Dan Berrigan’s interpretation) put it a long time ago, a hero is only a sandwich: up for grabs, down for good.