I’ve always had a soft spot for one particular meme on the web. It’s that one of the woman crying, the one that is called, “First World Problems.” And when it’s shared, it usually describes some sort of small, inconsequential problem affecting a person. Something only us folks in the “First World” have the great privilege of having to deal with.
There is something to it, isn’t there? The idea that our problems, really, aren’t that bad in the big picture. That perhaps there’s so much we should be grateful for, and that allowing these small problems to eat us up can be inherently self-destructive and perhaps even selfish.
It’s something we seem to love joking about in America. For all our economic troubles, we still eat decently, have roofs over our heads, most of us have smart phones and practically all of us have the internet.
So what’s there to complain about? What right, really, do we have to complain at all? There are people starving in Africa. Revolutions happening throughout the Middle East. Massacres happening everywhere.
What right do we have to complain?
That logic always made sense to me. “Be grateful!” I would tell myself when I would have my silly little problems.
But something interesting happened the other day.
I had published my latest post, “Why My Skin Color Means I’ll Never Feel Like I Belong”. It was about just what the title described, that I, with a somewhat darker complexion, found the way people externally defined me was often very different than how I looked at myself.
It got some interesting responses. People in similar situations seemed to understand. Others said they didn’t experience it, but sympathized. Others tried to argue (half-rightly, IMO) that I shouldn’t let how the outside world looks at me affect my definition of myself.
All of these responses, I understood, even the critical ones. I appreciated that people took the time to so seriously respond, to address an issue they felt was important. That people cared about my experience, whether they thought I handled it well or not.
But then… someone commented… someone that enraged me.
It’s rare that I get angry when people comment on my posts, honestly. You get used to hearing everything once you’ve written enough online. Every now and then, someone will genuinely hurt me. Some might sadden me.
But anger? Hardly ever.
But this one, this guy. All he did was a simple hashtag made up of three words.
Gosh, it angered me. I wanted to punch the computer for a second.
Those same three words that made me laugh at other people before. The same meme that I’d seen everywhere. Applied to me.
In one fell swoop, this person who knew nothing about me, who didn’t know me at all, and who read an account about something that I had been struggling with understanding for years, completely disregarded everything about my experience. No attempt to understand, no desire to learn more, no empathy.
It was interesting, honestly, when I looked back on it. Once the bile left my throat. Because it really was something I had said to others. Applied to others. I had laughed at that hilarious Louis CK bit on Conan along with millions of others.
And yet now I was so angry, bitter, about those same three words applied to me and my own problems.
To be fair, the person who commented was technically correct. I’m not starving in Africa. I’m not in horrible, writhing pain over the color of my skin. No one’s persecuting me. I’m not in some country full of rebellions, environmental threats, or diseases or danger at every corner.
What right, really, did I have to complain? How could I consider my problem more valid than anyone else that has “First World problems”?
But, of course, in the moment, in my own life, the moment I had to actually confront that question, I knew immediately how ridiculous it would be to discount this post of mine. How silly it would be to discount those years of experience, and the growth I had from them.
It was so clear on this side of the screen. So clear that my experience was valid in my own life. That living a life of relative comfort does not mean that I should ignore any and all of my problems. It does not mean I don’t deserve to speak about my own difficulties. It does not mean I can’t help others with similar experiences by sharing those thoughts with the word.
And yet. And yet I’ve laughed at those three words before. I’ve maybe even written them about someone else.
And so I wonder. I wonder if perhaps just as much as there is a tendency for some in the world to overstate and overshare their own “First World Problems” (and perhaps I’m guilty of that too), I wonder if perhaps we also have another difficulty in our generation. A difficulty that mirrors, that is the inverse of that “First World Problem” complaining situation.
And while, yes, many of these memes are even designed for us to mock our own problems: is that also such a good idea? Is teasing ourselves somehow more valid than teasing others?
I’ve always loved the Jewish law that we can’t talk badly about ourselves. Sometimes we forget that treating people with respect includes ourselves.
I wonder if we’ve become more callous. If we’ve decided that those around us don’t deserve our sympathy. Or even our empathy. If the screens in our lives have separated us from the experiences of others, just as much as they’ve brought more of those experiences in front of our eye balls.
Because why else would such a meme exist? Why else would we make jokes about others’ (and our own) problems, no matter how shallow? No matter how empty? No matter how ridiculous?
Is it our job to mock? Is teasing the right reaction to a world that is, perhaps, ridiculous and shallow?
I can’t believe that it is. I can’t believe that this teasing, that these jokes, are good for the world. Or that they help anyone. No matter whether they are correctly applied or not.
I’d love to see a meme that celebrates people. I’d love to see a meme that encourages us to love and respect each other, no matter how ridiculous we all are, no matter how empty and vacuous. A meme that celebrates the world no matter how much it lets us down.
I wonder what we’d call it.