First World Problems

First World Problems June 24, 2013

My father grew up in the Great Depression. He was the fifth of eight children and spent much of his youth sharecropping. My grandfather died when my dad was still in high school – he dropped out to go to work full time. Those early experiences gave him a rather unsympathetic view to the complaints of a certain geeky kid who preferred reading to farming and who had some very different ideas about what life was all about.

If I complained about foods I didn’t like, I’d hear “there are starving children in China who’d love to have that.” If I complained about not having something I thought I needed, I’d hear “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet” (which from a bit of googling appears to be an old Persian saying). Sometimes the responses were more direct: “stop complaining and do what I tell you.”

There’s a certain practicality in that approach, and as someone who preaches “do what you have to do so you can do what you’re called to do” I can see my father’s teachings haven’t completely left me. I can also appreciate that this approach helped him work his way from high school dropout to the solid middle class life that gave me my start. Such an achievement would be far more difficult today with the disappearance of so many good blue collar jobs, but that’s another rant for another time, and it doesn’t diminish the fact that it was a worthy achievement.

Looking back on those times with the benefit of experience and maturity, I see that while my father meant well, his approach was only partially helpful. Yes, there is wisdom in “just do it” and wallowing in despair is never helpful. But telling me I had no right to complain simply made a difficult situation harder.

I think about these things when I hear someone mention “first world problems.” Or when I’m having to deal with several of them at the same time.

No one who has the least bit of empathy wants to be heard complaining about the kind of problems that would land you on this page. I’m reluctant to complain about the cost of health insurance when so many people I know don’t have it and can’t get it. I’m reluctant to complain about stress at work when so many people are unemployed or underemployed, or work under far more difficult circumstances. I’m reluctant to complain about things breaking when 1) they’re just things and 2) they can be replaced one way or another.

I’m thankful for what I have, and I know that much of what I enjoy is due to the grace of the gods and pure dumb luck. But knowing that other people have worse problems than me doesn’t make my problems go away, it doesn’t make me feel any better, and it doesn’t motivate me to do the things I need to do.

If I was a first-class magician I could make these problems go away, right? If I was a truly spiritual person, these things wouldn’t bother me, right? No. Those ideas don’t make any more sense for Pagans than they do for Christians who claim that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. The only religious practice that makes problems go away is monasticism, and that’s only a partial solution. By devoting themselves to contemplation and extreme simplicity, monks give up the opportunity for experiences in exchange for freedom from the complications those experiences can bring. Monasticism is a trade-off, not a shield.

No matter what your religion or spirituality, no matter how devout or pious you are, you aren’t exempt from the realities and randomness of life.

What dedication to a positive religious tradition and a healthy spiritual practice can do is give you a sense of perspective. It can teach you the difference between inconvenience and injustice. It can help you see things as they really are, free from both fear and wishful thinking. When you see things as they really are, you’re in a much better position to respond appropriately and effectively. It can rearrange your priorities, reminding you than an annoyance is just an annoyance and not something that will keep you from your true will.

But it can’t make you immune to the frustration of unmet expectations, the anger at ineffective and uncaring systems, and the pain of loss. We shouldn’t pretend it can.

The only way to avoid travel complications is to never travel. The only way to avoid broken things is to never have them in the first place. The only way to avoid heartbreak is to never love. The only way to avoid death is to never live.

Those who make fun of first world problems are half right: we need to develop a sense of proportion and a sense of compassion for those whose daily lives are far more difficult than our worst day. My father was half right: when you’re in an unpleasant situation, pick yourself up and do what you have to do to make it better.

But the fact that others are hurting more doesn’t make me hurt any less.

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  • 12StepWitch

    I have to respectfully disagree. Thinking about the suffering of others instead of my own suffering does relieve my suffering as long as I am engaged in actively trying to help relieve their suffering. In other words, being of service to people who are suffering relieves my suffering.

    I don’t know how it works but it does. It is a cliche in 12 step programs but when someone is feeling funky one of the first suggestions to them is “be of service.”

    When I am mired in my own suffering and self-pity, the best thing that can happen to me is an opportunity to be of service to someone. It can be in providing a listening ear, helping them with a ride or a move, accompanying them to a doctors appointment, taking a meeting into a hospital, working the steps, etc. When I come back to myself, my suffering is usually gone, and in its place is acceptance, perspective, or a new idea for how to approach whatever my problem was.

    • 12StepWitch, I completely agree that helping others is a great way to put your own problems in perspective, in addition to being the right thing to do.

      But helping others doesn’t make my problems go away. Pretending it doesn’t bother me or hearing others claim my pain isn’t legitimate because it isn’t as bad as someone else’s doesn’t help – it makes it worse.

      What helps is to accept that yes, this sucks, and I have a right to be frustrated, angry, annoyed, or hurt. When I stop fighting myself and accept that what is, is, then I can think more clearly and I’m in a better position to figure out the cause of my pain, and what – if anything – can be done to alleviate it.

      • Erin

        I think both are good- surely helping others is noble and not an unworthy way of spending time or gaining perspective. But one also has to accept emotional realities of the moment without judgement- emotions aren’t right or wrong, they just are. We have to go through them before they can be done with us, and hopefully we can both be gentle with ourselves while we are doing so, and have the benefit of emotional support from others at the same time. When the emotions have had the chance to run their course, then one can think clearer and approach the problem from the position of, if I don’t like the situation I am in, what will I do first to change it. All of these are good, with no one being better than the others; rather, they can work well together as consecutive steps in addressing an emotionally-fraught issue. The more tools we have in our tool boxes the easier the job is to tackle.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Except that these problems are frequently connected, and telling you not to complain about it is a way to silence discussion about the underlying problem. Your health insurance is expensive, I don’t have any, some people can’t get the most basic care- that’s the same problem, caused by the same corrupt and destructive system. Rather than telling people not to complain, we should encourage them to stand in solidarity.

  • Sterling Stewart

    Yep. This is good…

  • Anna H.

    Excellent post. Being mindful of our own privilege and the overall blessedness of our lives in contrast with many others does not mean that it is wrong for us to experience anger, pain, frustration, etc. at our own problems. It does help put them in perspective and I agree with the comment that service can help to mitigate our own pain. But feeling guilty for one’s “first world problem” just serves to stuff the emotion away, and no good comes of that.

  • Enjoyed reading your post. I have many comments that I would love to share with you on this topic but I will only share a few.

    First off, it is one thing to complain and it is another to recognize the privilege that we have in what ever form it comes in. Only then can we have wonderful conversations about things like the cost of health care, under-insured, and uninsured. This is something that being at my one graduate school has taught me that we all have privilege even if it seems like we don’t. I have been through some harsh experiences and I would never give them up because I learned valuable lessons and I am the person I am today because of it. Although the things I experienced I would never wish on anyone, I have the privilege of the knowledge gained from living & surviving these experiences.

    The last thing is that I changed a lot of my little complaints many years ago. When I lived in Germany, I decided that it was stupid to complain about the heat in summer and then the cold in winter. From that moment on I decided that I would only complain about the cold but I have discovered that I no longer make complaints about the weather. I have even caught myself telling others that it is no big deal because why complain because eventually the season changes and instead of being happy that you got what you wanted you continue to complain. It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. There are a lot more complex things to worry about in life then the weather which you can not control.

    Again great post and it has made me think of some new ideas in regards to the different types of privilege.

  • Thank you for the well thought out post, I do think a sense of perspective is often missing. And one pain does not invalidate another’s suffering; but it is proportion and compassion that give a map to attack and solve MORE problems.