First World Problems

May 28th, 2009

A few days ago, my friend Curtis started a community on LiveJournal called First World Problems. It’s for daily annoyances and complaints, but the phrase “First World” puts an ironic spin on these complaints–these are the things that only bother us because we’re in a position where we have the affluence to be bothered by them. My portable Nintendo won’t fit in the pocket of my Kenneth Cole jacket. They’re remaking my favorite old TV show, and they’re going to ruin it. My housekeeper forgets to dust off the top of my refrigerator. The singer I like didn’t win American Idol. Some of the posts are exaggerated in their picture of affluence–I can never decide which of my six cars to drive to the beach!–but others are the ordinary complaints that average Americans (and other Westerners) usually post to Twitter or Facebook.

But the “First World” in the title of the community is an interesting reminder that the rest of the world is out there. Our lives now happen in a global context; how do we live them with mindfulness of the world? Of course, it’s easy to use this line of reasoning to be dismissive of everything we do. How can you care about (the dust on your fridge/ the number of calories in a latte/ finding shoes to match your belt) when there are starving children in Africa? If we carry this argument to its logical extreme, it’s hard to argue for any line of action other than abandoning our civilization and moving to a mud hut. But that ain’t gonna happen.

Buddha taught in the First Noble Truth that human experiences are unsatisfactory–the Sanskrit word “dukkha.” This applies to any kind of experience; dukkha follows us anywhere we go. We expect experiences to satisfy us, but they don’t. Once we get that car, a few moments later we notice that other people have nicer cars, and we’re not satisfied. And while sometimes it’s fun to joke about our first-world complaints, how they make us look like the spoiled children of the world, it also doesn’t always help us feel more satisfied. I know I shouldn’t be overly upset that they stopped carrying my favorite cereal, but I am anyway, and telling me that I should close my eyes and think of orphans in Bangladesh doesn’t make things better. The Global Rich List tells me that I’m in the top tier of rich people in the world–the top 8%–but I still have student loans to repay, still have to put gas in my car to get to work, still have obligations to the First World that I need to keep up.

So we have a twofold task in seeing ourselves as first-world whiners: to learn to be content with our place in life, but also to learn to share our good fortune with the rest of the world. Both are important; though we can never entirely overcome dukkha, or overcome poverty, we do what we can to work on both.

And there are social problems to overcome in the first world. Problems with inequality, health care, and economic dysfunction are significant, and should be addressed. But if laughing at ourselves a little bit helps us feel a little more lucky to be on the lucky side of the world, then that’s what we should do.

Leave a Reply