Nearly four years, I was fresh off the plane back from China after living abroad for 2.5 years. I learned quickly that reverse culture shock is real. Outwardly, I was moody and judgmental of my home culture. Inwardly, I was having an identity crisis. Living abroad was a very meaningful identity – but I wasn’t doing that anymore. I was getting ready to turn 30. While I had done some pretty amazing things, I hadn’t checked any of the “primary” boxes I thought I would achieve at this point in life.
I was very single. There was not a prospect in sight – and my experiences with online dating though comical, often left me feeling even more depressed (stories for another day). I was back living with my parents because I was jobless – and uncertain where or what I even wanted to end up doing. Daily I searched job postings – waiting for the one that made it clear why the Lord had called me home.
In the midst of it all, I went to an event at my niece and nephew’s school. When I spotted a classmate from middle school, I felt embarrassed. Here I was single, childless, and jobless. I contemplated how I might avoid her – but alas, there was no such luck.
She spotted me and came over to greet me. She was (as far as I could tell) happily married with a couple of adorable children. She asked the dreaded question of what I’d been up to.
My dad, who was standing nearby, quickly launched into an account of my adventures. I’d recently returned from traveling around Vietnam after teaching in China. His fatherly pride shone through. I don’t remember all the rest of the conversation – I may have sheepishly mentioned my job search. But what I do remember was the look on her face. It was almost like jealousy – and she said something about how she wished she could do what I was doing.
I felt like a bucket of water had been thrown on me – because I realized at that moment that this other person whose life looked so much more like what I thought mine would look like thought my life was desirable. I realized she and I likely shared the same human condition that goes back to the very beginning. Wanting what we don’t have. Being discontent with what we do have. Not stopping to appreciate the moment we’re in.
I’ve often thought of Teddy Roosevelt’s saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy” over the years – and it keeps on coming to my mind as of late. I wonder why time and time again I’m sucked into the cycle of comparing myself to others instead of rejoicing with them in their accomplishments or mourning with them in their pain.
And I remember the words of the Apostle Paul (so often misinterpreted):
“…for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11b-13
Paul isn’t saying he’s learned the secret to winning football games, passing an exam you haven’t studied for, or getting your dream job. Rather, Paul is telling us that he’s learned the secret to be content when he has everything he wants or when nothing is going according to plan (ie. he’s in prison or shipwrecked) – and that is the realization is that we aren’t working on our own strength. That God’s plan is much bigger than we can comprehend.
Now each time I begin to compare myself to others (which is still all too often!), I go back to that moment – and I go back to the words of Scripture. I’m reminded that my identity isn’t rooted in my job, my relationship status or my fun travel stories. My identity is rooted in who I am as a child of God – and that alone is enough. God’s work or timing may be different than my human plans – but that doesn’t mean I should allow discontentment, comparison and bitterness into my heart.
My prayer is that each man or woman who is reading this will realize that God is working in and through them right at this moment. Even if you haven’t accomplished what that one friend has at her job. Even if your kids aren’t behaved like that other friend’s kids. Even if your relationship (or lack thereof) is nothing like those other friends. Even if life seems completely and utterly unfair. I hope that we can learn the secret to being content at any moment –that God is at work during the good and the bad times. That means we can mourn with others, we can celebrate with others, recognizing that God is using each experience to bring about his plan and his glory – and to bring about our ultimate good.