First-World Problems

When I couldn’t think of a solution to a problem I had, I posted the problem on Facebook. I knew I’d get interesting, odd, weird, smart, funny, and wise answers. It wasn’t a big problem, but I wanted to get out of my own head, so Facebook seemed like a good crowdsourcing solution. Other people’s perspectives can really wake you up.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 11.18.15 AMAnd one of them did. “No disrespect, but ‘first-world problem’,” he wrote. My eyes rolled. Whenever someone says, “No disrespect” it means, “I’m about to be deliberately disrespectful, but  because I said ‘no disrespect’ first,  you  should suck up whatever I dish out, and if you do get angry, I can accuse you of not having a sense of humor.”  Sort of like “Bless your heart,” or the little winky-face emoji. That kind of passive-aggressive behavior never sits well with me.

I first heard the term about three years ago and at first thought it was funny. There are so many things to be grateful for in a normal life. Small problems plus drama creates big problems. But even small problems need to be solved, and often throwing money at it is not an option, so the solution demands time, effort, money, or luck that you don’t have. Generally at exactly the time you don’t have an excess of what you need.

I might as well say to someone who is stuck in a snowstorm, “non-desert problem. If you lived here, you wouldn’t have that problem.”

Lovely stream next to a nice greenway. Except, it's a sewage canal.

Lovely stream next to a nice greenway. Except, it’s a sewage canal.

We live in the first world. Inconveniences cost time and money, both of which can send a ripple into our lives. Our problems are our problems, it doesn’t matter which world owns them, we live in a certain time and place, and it doesn’t matter that the problem is first, second, or third world. It’s still a problem that requires a solution or, worse, several solutions involving cooperation.

Here’s an example: I dropped a tube of lipstick, which falls into the open toilet. The lipstick tube in the toilet couldn’t be pulled out by hand, and I don’t have a snake, so I had to call a first-world plumber and not use the toilet, which created a third-world living condition.

When someone did use the toilet, it flooded, pouring sewage on my floor, soaking into the bath mat. So, sewage in the house: third-world problem. Plumber who cost $125, first-world problem. Someone who had to stay home and wait for the plumber: another first-world problem. Fouled bath mat: lucky I have a washer and dryer, so, second-world solution.

I washed the mat and hung it outside to dry–nice third-world solution. Then aScreen Shot 2015-01-24 at 12.26.49 PM bird pooped on it, but that’s a third-world problem again, so I washed it again, wasting first-world water and first world-time. Birds poop in all worlds.

Dizzy yet? Me, too. Saying “first world problem” has nothing to do with the size of the problem. What it really means is, “this is trivial to me, and you should not let this bother you at all.” Who gets to judge that? One person’s inconvenience is another’s big deal.

And who are we to think first-world problems, the ones that are solved by first-world solutions, are trivial?  First-world conveniences, for which I am hugely grateful, and would not want to live without, include shots so you don’t get shingles, smallpox or polio. Electricity, central heat and cooling, paved roads, a system that brings food to my grocery store, mail to my door, and the internet to my computer. And yet each of those solutions has inherent problems of waste, pollution and costs. First-world problems.

Calling the plumber, and tossing the stinky mats into the washer cost me time and required me to change my outfit, which got sewage dripped on it. The change made me run into heavier traffic, and arrive late to a teaching gig, to face an unhappy client, who fired me. (This actually happened. One of those “no excuses, take responsibility, you should have gotten up half an hour earlier in case you dropped your lipstick in the toilet and had to call a plumber and got sewage on your jacket” clients.) Still trivial? Only if I don’t care about the money. Or if have lots of clients to replace the one I lost.

We live in the first world. We all have first-world problems. Perhaps we should be grateful for them, and glad we manage to get enough food on the table. Losing that client made a significant difference in my income for several months. No, I did not starve. But the ripples were worth more than a shrug.

At first I, too, thought “first-world problem” was clever. A way to remind people how lucky they are. But after thinking it over, I’m not going to use it again, not to describe someone else’s problems. Because you don’t know what world they are in at the moment.

-Quinn McDonald lives in the first world with all-world problems.