One of the sweetest young men I know asked me this question the other day:
"Sometimes I feel bad and critical of myself because I haven't gone on a mission (yet..?) while my brothers, dad, mom, sister, uncles, cousins, great-grandpa and whoever else has. Is that normal?"
And of course, it is normal. It is universally normal.
We all tend to measure ourselves against those around us; using others as a "yardstick" to determine our own stature by comparison, value by correlation, typicality by juxtaposition is human nature.
Generally, however it is not helpful or beneficial to do this. The very definition of "comparison" is "the quality of being similar or equivalent" which NONE OF US are. Not just because of the dramatic ways that our individual DNA has turned us out the way we are, or how our childhoods, experiences, and effects of societal conditioning have shaped us -- but because by the very design of God, we are different:
1 Corinthians 12:18-22In other words, God has established, in his wisdom and love, that we are all distinct members of a single body, his family. Through our differences we have dissimilar abilities, dissimilar purposes, and dissimilar substance. We are not similar or equivalent, i.e. "equal another in value, amount, function, meaning, etc." Yet we are all necessary, we all belong, and we are all equally loved.
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary
How would it be for an eye to measure its value or ability to function by comparing itself to a hand when they are so different? How would either the hand or the eye gain a real understanding of their individual meaning by contrasting and measuring themselves to something that is, does, and means something totally different?
This is purposeful on God's part because this life is about learning to let go of comparing and instead to gauge your substance, your worth, and your path via your own spiritually guided sense of self and what you learn is God's will for you.
It isn't easy though.
Essentially human beings make sense of the world by comparing. We take something and examine how it is similar and different to everything else in order to understand it. This is sometimes referred to as "meaning cues" or what we have learned from life experiences. For example, "meaning is held in memories," in what children have seen, heard, lived thus far, therefore new learning "should make sense in comparison to what they know, or understand, about their world" (source). I think that's why we do this same comparison to our "selves" too. We are trying to make sense of the world by seeing what others are/do and then taking from that a definition of right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure etc.
In responding to that initial question at the beginning of this post, I told him that I believe missions can be great for people. I am glad I went because of how it changed me and made me better. But, it also hurt me in some ways. (Just last night I had a mission PTSD dream! I woke up anxious and it lasted most of the morning.)
Despite this, and other drawbacks, for me the pros outweigh the cons. I don't think that is true for everyone who goes... For this reason, I often feel that it is unfortunate that our culture puts so much pressure on young people to go on missions, and especially to go on missions right away. I don't think that a mission is the "right thing" for everyone, even with all the good it offers, and I especially don't think it is the right thing for everyone at the VERY YOUNG age of 18 or 19.
Some people NEED to wait. (My dad did! But there was less pressure and it was less of a big deal to wait back then.) And, while I could get in some trouble for saying this, some people are better off not going at all (though I think that should be a decision made as a result of a lot of soul searching and guidance from God).
But, back to comparisons: No matter what someone decides on this issue, to go on a mission or to not go, they will inevitably face societal judgements and pressures -- as well as inner doubt, fear, and inadequacy. (I have all kinds of stories on this topic...) And dealing with those types of situations and feelings are just part of making ANY big life decision because they all bring the seemingly inevitable comparisons.
I've noticed that in my own life, having a strong spiritual confirmation is often the only thing I have to hold onto in the face of great inner uncertainty and the pressure of outer expectations. So I rely on the experience of having the spirit confirm to me a choice.
...And sometimes there isn't even that...and I just have to step out into "the dark" and trust that no matter what happens God will make good out of my choice.
I believe most of our life choices (to go on missions, to go to college, to move here or there, to have kids, to take a certain job, etc etc) are NOT a matter of right and wrong. God can and will make good out of whatever we use our agency to choose, because he loves us. I think this is a big part of what the Atonement is.
Obviously certain choices lead to certain consequences (and consequences can make the choice seem "good" or seem "bad") but consequences are just the result of living in a world where there is cause and effect and anyway, this is how we learn! Experience and understanding, whether it is hard or happy or whatever is GOOD (It's the purpose of life!)
Learning how to let go of comparing is the best step to self-worth and peace, but it is a lifelong lesson.
First is learning to keep our eye set on God. That means not looking side to side at each other, but letting our "eye be single to [God's] glory, [that our] whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in [us]; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things" -- including our own individual worth and path (D&C 88:67).
Second is remembering that in this life we "see through a glass, darkly" but there will come a time when we wont just "know in part" but will "know even as also [we are] known" (1 Corin. 13:12). God will reveal to us, line upon line, who we truly are and the our worth as individual members -- and we will see our selves as he sees us: without any type of comparison and uniquely precious and uniquely enough.
We "measure up" not because of how we are "similar or equivalent" to others, but because we are unique and because God loves us.