Time to Retire #FirstWorldProblems

People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations.—Teju Cole

***

One was a friend who lives alone and is desperately lonely during COVID.

One was a mom who feared her child would get left behind with online schooling.

One was a young woman who genuinely struggles with emotional overeating.

 

Three totally unique individuals who were living out utterly distinct lives. And yet, all three felt the urge to halt their openness and put a lid on it as if it were a garbage fire by saying, "you know, first world problems." 

 

Suddenly, my compassion for these people, compassion for what they were going through as individuals, was intersected by confusion, as if we'd been driving along together with them at the wheel then—HANG ON!—the car takes a sudden and blunt turn. 


Each of them were so quick to discount their own feelings by calling them, perhaps a bit derogatorily, first world problems. 

 

My quick answer is always NO! Your feelings are totally valid! I'm so so glad you were honest.

 

And my voice often comes across as awkward and urgent because I desperately want them to get back to where they were—that honest, murky place of vulnerability—so that we could genuinely finish our discussion without the sabotage of that stupid statement.

 

***

 

I've never liked that phrase—#FirstWorldProblems. Although, until today, I didn't care enough to go any deeper in considering why

 

After a few minutes with a pen and paper and a mug of half-drunk Earl Gray, it started to get clearer. As far as I can tell, the phrase works simultaneously to accomplish two things:

 

1. As a shield of armor to slam down over mucky, mealy feelings that are true and current. (In the case of my loneliness, fear, dread and disappointment.) I see it used this way again and again. Feelings bubble up like so many feral animals and declaring #FirstWorldProblems stuffs them back in their cage and bolts the door.

 

2.  It also kind-of-sort-of gives a shout out to the people who are worse off at any given moment, as if somehow it is doing them a solid by damping down your own challenges in honor of them. Problem is, it doesn't work that way.

 

Neither of those make the case for genuine empathy. And neither allow us to be vulnerable with our own feelings. It's a connection-interrupter. 

 

(Granted, there are some pretty funny #FWP parodies out there that mock the laziness of the affluent and entitled. But what I'm talking about here is something different.) 

 

#FirstWorldProblems renders in me the same disconnect as I felt as a child when a grown up would say I'M FINE, as they were clearly seething. Or when someone would begin to delve into sharing something real and scary to them, but cut themselves off with and eye-swipe and never mind, you don't want to hear about it, it's nothing. 

 

***

 

According to Stephen Poole, from The Guardian, The phrase is an anachronism, since we no longer talk about the “third world”. (The usual phrase is the optimistic “developing world”.)

 

He continued: "In the guise of right-on sympathy, we condescendingly picture others as living lives of homogeneous horror while rhetorically rendering them invisible as people, denying the individuality of everyone’s various joys and sorrows."

 

Yes, the individuality of everyone's joys and sorrows.

 

So what do people from "developing countries" think of the phrase? Do they feel honored to be folded into this kind of auto-statement? 

 

Nigerian novelist and Harvard professor, Teju Cole, was raised in Lagos and splits his time between Nigeria and the United States. His feelings on #FirstWorldProblems were made clear on Twitter. Here is the summary of his thoughts:

 

"I don't like this expression "First World problems." It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here's a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are."

 

***

 

Even though I am loathe to that three-word-phrase, I have noticed my own feelings of comparison starting to spike, especially over the last six months of COVID.

 

It frequently plays out like this: I start to feel a feeling that is true and real to me, for example, claustrophobia, irritation, overwhelm—the pandemic trifecta. And as the feeling is halfway to settling, percolating, having it's merry way through my system like the pinwheel turning on the screen, another pop-up emotion elbows its way center-stage. How dare you feel that feeling with the fortunate life you've been given.

 

You are not an essential worker. You are not working full-time from home while caring for Ruth and Opal. Your marriage is pretty incredible. Thus—any and every negative feeling has not been earned.

 

Suddenly, the purity of a feeling comes with a chewy layer of comparison and self-judgment. It's a two-fer, a combo. It even works with the feeling of joy! Clean, sparkling joy is so often followed up with a slathering of guilt-for-having-joy-when-others-don't. 

 

Trying to separate the feeling from the judgment is akin to trying to separate Ruth from the cat (who she's obsessed with). So noticing is the best I can do for the time being. Yes, I certainly have a fortunate life. But what does that have to do with what I have the right to feel?

 

A belief was picked up somewhere along the way that we are somehow beneficial to others by tampering down our own feelings/experiences (either with internal dialogue OR #HabitualPhrases). Also woven into that belief is that conveying feelings of discontent is synonymous to spoiled complaining, and articulating feelings of delight is synonymous with bragging. 

 

In short, this belief is expired.

 

These pandemic days are hard as hell sometimes. I feel it. You feel it. And feeling it without shackles of mental manipulation is what connects us. When we feel authentic and heard, we have so much more access to gratitude, that all-powerful force that trumps self-judgment and guides us back to truly being able to share ourselves with others. 

 

***

 

Is having a discussion of the inherent problems of #FirstWorldProblems indeed a first world problem? Perhaps. 

 

As is having a discussion about the implications of any phrase that a culture has blindly adopted. Taking a closer look at how it changes our ability to experience the world fairly, and what it implies about those who are less fortunate, is a worthy discussion in my book.

 

(Take the phrase "wife-beater": this mindless, offensive phrase that still actively bops around—among even the smartest of company—to describe a tight, white tank top. Jesse recently used it without thinking and Opal said, what did you just say??)

 

By taking a moment to examine the language we use, as a culture, to keep others at arm's length, to avoid seeing their humanity by subtly distorting our own experience and feelings time and time again—I don't see this as a first world problem, or a developing world issue. 

 

I see it as another step in human development.

 

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