I Have First World Problems (And That’s Okay)

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.

Just dismissal.

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.





9 responses to “I Have First World Problems (And That’s Okay)”

  1. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    I agree. Many jokes or memes that I’ve laughed at, or thought were witty or “clever,” are not good for the world or for developing empathy. But there’s something about them that our lower souls latch onto, I think.

    I don’t know if I agree that the commenter was technically correct. I think that being treated differently based on appearance or skin color is a universally human problem. It also occurs in third world countries, and is a serious issue.

    Thanks for this post. May we take it to heart.

    1. Rebecca K. Avatar
      Rebecca K.

      I’d have to agree that treating people according to skin color is not at all a First World Problem, but a universal one.

      I also think that if a person has a First World Problem, that is the challenge G-d has sent them. Now, maybe part of the soul-correction they need to make is to realize their problem really is no biggie. But maybe it’s to react with dignity and moral center even with dealing with a small, seemingly insignificant situation.

      What is hard in life is a relative situation. Think about kids, and how they overreact to small things, like spills or a trinket breaking. How they handle those things teaches them how to deal with bigger things later on.

      Maybe how we deal with First World Problems can teach us how to deal with bigger, universal ones in the long run. (Not that I hope to be tested too hard, nor should any of you have scary challenged in life.)

  2. daniel.saunders Avatar

    I don’t find the ‘first world problems’ meme particularly funny, but I don’t see it as problematic in itself. However, I don’t think your experience of bullying and discrimination is a ‘first world problem’, regardless of the fact that you live in the first world. You raised an important issue that needs to be addressed.

    By comparison, we currently have ongoing problems with our internet access. I would call that a ‘first world problem’, because one has to have a certain level of prosperity to have the problem in the first place and because ultimately it is an irritant, nothing more. Labelling it as such helps me keep it in proportion. This is vastly different from racial discrimination, which is much more serious.

    The phrase I’d like to get rid of is when people respond to a problem with, “Welcome to my world.” This basically means, “I do not sympathize with your problems and I actually want you to sympathize with me instead.”

  3. almondjill Avatar

    I do hear your point, and I agree with not dismissing other people’s problems by using that phrase. But I find that when I say it about my own life, it’s usually a positive reminder that I should put things in perspective; there are worse problems than not finding a cleaning lady, or etc. And it helps me not get weighed down by issues that are insignificant in the larger scheme of things. In other words, I accept that it’s annoying, but I can keep the emotional barometer set to low, because there are people who have real life-threatening issues. And gee, aren’t I lucky. Switch out – #firstworldproblems with #iamgratefulformyproblems

  4. Dov Avatar

    The only positive meme I can think of is “Faith in Humanity Restored”. But yes, I really do get your message that nowadays people are apathetic as a whole.

    And I do love the “No Gossiping” rule Jews have also

  5. Dash Avatar

    I think we need more compassion for each other, even for our enemies and all those in-between. Righteousness seems to have replaced compassion, I think this happens when the ego tries to get involved in a situation. That being said, I think if you’re genuinely concerned about some form of pain you’re experiencing, it’s also ok to make fun of yourself because it helps people realize that you have put things into perspective but nonetheless your pain is real. That way they don’t feel like making fun of your pain for you, and instead can focus on empathizing- it’s breaking their defenses.

  6. Shoshannah Avatar

    Your topic wasn’t First World at all as others have mentioned. Two years ago I chaperoned a 10th grade class to the United States Holocaust Museum which was a day trip. Yesterday my husband, daughter and I took the day to go down there again but my husband had never been there. In the museum we were definitely identified as Jewish just by attire but everyone who walked through with us was so incredibly gracious. We were in there three hours. We walked out of the museum and merged into the world of bystanders. We then drove to a kosher pizza place in Silver Spring, MD and I can only speak for me but my heart screamed HOME – even three hours away from home. In PA our Jewish communities are very small except for Philly. Even Pittsburgh is small now. So there we’re surrounded by brothers and sisters who had no idea who we were and it was downright hilarious. Sephardic? No, no not him but her yes. Accent? Maybe Israeli? No but not Brooklyn either. Everyone was exceptionally nice – don’t get me wrong; we all had a good laugh by the time we left. But the point is that after three hours in the museum interfacing with everything there – even though our brains know it and some of us have family who were there – it doesn’t matter. The nefesh always wants to win and I know that I was very wary crossing Washington D.C. after we left because of emotion. These topics you bring up are extremely important worldwide – look at Darfur right now. TY again for your post.

  7. isaack Avatar

    There is a related concept within Judaism: If a poor person comes begging for food, you proved everything they need.
    But it doesn’t just end there.
    If this same poor person is someone formerly wealthy, someone accustomed to luxury, you are not allowed to push him away with a loaf of bread and a cup of water. You must provide them with meat, chicken, fish, wine, and whatever else they are accustomed to eating. Judaism recognizes that the “Istanis,” the person who is sensitive and accustomed to his luxuries, is truly pained by their absence. So much so that such a person may engage in activities normally considered prohibited due to the personal pain they experience.

    Judaism demands sensitivity not just to the basic needs of our fellow man, but to the individual circumstances they face and the personal pain they feel. To disregard these is to completely destroy the act of tzedakah you are attempting because it exemplifies selfish giving – you are making your own heartache disappear, not the needy individual in front of you.

    May we learn to be truly giving individuals, ones who seek to understand the needs of our fellow man and connect to them on a personal level.

  8. Milhouse Avatar

    First world problems are also problems. They matter to us, because they affect us, and if we can fix them we should. But at the same time we must keep them in perspective. In the bigger picture they are meaningless. “I used to cry because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet.” How true. And yet lack of shoes is a real problem; it may not matter to the cripple, and a third person who can help only one of them should probably help him rather than the shoeless person, but that will still leave the latter barefoot. The shoeless person is right to cry, but not too much. He’s right to do what he can to improve his situation, but he should not imagine that his shoelessness is the biggest problem in the world. That is all.

    Keeping things in perspective does not mean pretending they don’t exist. When one says a problem is not important, the key question is “compared to what?”. Lack of shoes is important compared to lack of a TV or a car. It is not important compared to lack of feet. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is important compared to worrying about a test at school. It’s not important compared to worrying about a test at the oncologist chas vesholom.

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