Coming off of Thanksgiving feasting and a time of gratitude for abundance, I’ve been mulling over the meme “first world problem,” the identification of a concern, often of a distinctly modern, technological nature, as petty in contrast to the relative physical comforts of the “first world.” Lately, I’ve used and heard the phrase used in an expanded way that goes beyond the humor of slow internet service or a traffic jam out on the highway.
I recently found myself using the phrase as a self-deprecating dismissal of a genuine personal concern. Then in conversation with a friend, I heard him use the phrase in response to a real concern of his own. Hearing someone else dismiss his own suffering was a powerful moment for me, as I realized we probably all do that to ourselves, through guilt trips or thinking others will judge us. As we then talked about our “first world problems”, we realized that there is a lot of truth to the joking, a humorous reminder to keep things in perspective. We do enjoy an abundance of food and clean water, and the security of roofs over our heads, along with relative political stability and safety.
Simultaneously, we were aware that looking through the “first world problem” lens inappropriately can minimize challenges that call for our attention. By dismissing our unique, personal work as petty in comparison to other forms of suffering or as somehow disconnected from humanity, we are less likely to act to transform both ourselves and, hopefully, the world.
Having lived for a couple of years in the “developing world”, I witnessed poverty greater than the norm in the United States, yet there are many here who experience extreme poverty as well. I found there is nuance and subtlety to human experience, be it in Denver or a small village in the Atlas Mountains. The “first world” and “developing world” lenses are too simplistic. A nation’s wealth does not address human happiness. Human suffering is not limited to that lens. There are real challenges, familial, economic, social, psychological, and spiritual that we all experience in some way, shape, or form the world over.
So, in this season of feasts and gift giving, I am reminded that gratitude is a powerful attitude to adopt in a world of great suffering. And, at the same time, we do not have to dismiss our own experience of suffering. On the contrary, we have an incredible opportunity to work on our own issues to emerge stronger and better able to give back to our families, friends, communities, and the greater world of which we are a part.