As a single college graduate working in retail, I had lifestyle stats that, compared with those of my peers, would not add up to typical success. If I believed society, I would think success is marked by specific, material goals - that happiness can be measured by the yardstick of comparison with others.
These standards of progress include career advancement, marriage, parenthood, financial abundance, and material acquisition, such as owning a home.
As my high school and college friends achieved impressive salaries, marriage, children, and home ownership, I felt pressure to settle down and establish a "normal" lifestyle. After regular moving and job-changing, I was living with relatives and working a part-time retail job. Despite the fact that the situation arose from a desire to help my relatives, I viewed the lack of independence as a failure. I also didn't foresee any long-term relationship in the near future. Though I knew I was fulfilling God's will, I subconsciously accepted society's expectations, and I felt depressed about my supposed shortcomings.
I decided I needed to pray.
In "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," I found Mary Baker Eddy's drastically different and spiritual view of success. She wrote: "Gladness to leave the false landmarks and joy to see them disappear, - this disposition helps to precipitate the ultimate harmony" (pg. 324). To me, those landmarks were society's expectations, and I realized that they were temporal and fleeting, and they did not represent true progress. The only true progress is spiritual. Giving up these landmarks is what Mrs. Eddy spoke of in her poem "The Mother's Evening Prayer" when she wrote, "...loss is gain" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," pg. 389). Losing material goals naturally results in gaining more spiritual ones.
Focusing on society-approved priorities or trying to keep up with the Joneses traps us between the mutually exclusive opposites of material and spiritual progress. Only by putting value on the real and eternal can we find joy that is stable, unchanging, and not subject to circumstances. As stated in Matthew, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (6:20, 21).
Relying on material measurements of success, happiness, and progress inherently includes comparison, because it means constantly striving for bigger, better, newer, more. But a rose can't be compared to a tulip to determine which is better, which is more beautiful, which brings more joy. Both, along with all floral variations, are important and necessary. There are no duplicates in God's creation.
Similarly, each individual reflects a distinct, equally important, variation. The infinite must be reflected by infinity. Missing even one element of that infinite reflection would deny God's infinitude. The theory that one flower, person, or experience is better than another or preferred over another leads to partiality. And God is impartial. He loves His creation equally, without comparison.
Comparison results from a subtle, insidious belief in a power other than God, in a quality or quantity more than the one true all-good. But the existence of such a power is not possible, because all creation is maintained by its one Creator. One Creator allows no room for comparison.
We don't need to let comparisons deny our inherent individuality by suggesting a uniform path, solution, or reflection for everyone. Instead of thinking we don't measure up to where society says we should be, we can be secure in the essential individuality we each reflect as God's ideas.
This new understanding led me to embrace the unconventional, guided path of my experience. I no longer felt the need to play the comparison game. Not long after this spiritual growth, I discovered a career I could pursue passionately and launched out on my own again. I finally had the independence and direction I thought I'd been lacking. But the real achievement was learning that true happiness and success come only as the limiting steppingstones of human progress are replaced by a desire for spiritual progress.