Image by Jac o p o
A new response to people talking about problems has come up: “First world problems.”
I absolutely can’t stand it.
Now — there are first-world problems that are kind of silly. Like, if you’re complaining about having to sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets because your silk sheets are dirty, that’s a first-world problem. Or even if you can only find 73% dark chocolate and you really want 80% dark, that’s a first-world problem. These are truly trivial in the grand scheme and you probably even know it when you say it. It’s potentially a momentary frustration, but does it really matter? No, not so much.
But the thing is, most of the time when someone says “First world problems” they’re not talking about anything that silly or trivial. In fact, they often use it to write off real problems as trivial when they are not. This is wrong.
What Is a First-World Problem?
A first-world problem is the kind of trivial nonsense that I mentioned above, like how dark your chocolate is or which brand of luxury sheets you can afford (supposing you have such at all!). It’s something that doesn’t overall affect your life — it doesn’t change your health, wellness, financial situation, or anything that is truly meaningful. A store being out of your favorite ice cream flavor is pretty trivial. These things are minor, self-limiting, and just not a big deal in the long run.
Anything that affects your health, wellness, finances, living situation, etc. (whether physically or emotionally) or that is meaningful in some way, is not a “first world problem.” Why is that?
The phrase “first world problem” is used to dismiss someone’s concern. It means: “That problem only is happening because you live in the first world. It’s stupid and you shouldn’t care about it. Go try living in a third-world country and see what real problems are like instead.”
It minimizes someone’s problem. It tells them to ‘get over it.’ It tells them that they don’t really matter, and the things that bother them don’t either. It’s dismissive and it’s rude!
Problems That Are Not Really First World Problems
I have heard people say “first world problems” when someone describes a problem like:
- “I’m having trouble dealing with my friends or neighbors”
- “I’m having trouble finding healthy food I can afford”
- “My husband and I aren’t getting along”
- “I can’t figure out how to pack healthy, affordable lunches for my family”
- “My child is struggling with a food intolerance/reaction”
These things are real, and they are serious! Perhaps, technically, they only or usually occur in the “first world” but they are related to health, wellness, and relationships. It’s incredibly rude to write them off!
When people complain about their finances or their struggles to afford adequate (or even healthy) food, people often write it off as a ‘first world problem’ because “All those people in the third world are starving, they live on $1 a day!” Okay, and…? First of all, with their living standards and their culture, that $1 will go a lot further than $1 would in the U.S. And second, that means that we ought to donate to charities and help to improve their situations. But it does not mean that our problems are not valid just because they have problems too!
If someone’s having a problem that is meaningful to them, it should be taken seriously.
All Problems are Relative
We all have problems, and what is a “big problem” to one person may not be to another. One person may be struggling in their marriage. Another may be struggling with their housing situation. Another may be struggling to afford healthy food that doesn’t make their family sick. They are all different problems. We cannot compare them and rate them as being ‘worse’ than another.
It’s important to accept others where they are, and accept their problems too. We need to listen to them when they are struggling and not tell them “Well, you know, so-and-so really has it worse.” That is not what a true friend would do. And if it’s a random person on the internet? Remember what your mom used to say and if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.
We could all use a little more understanding, a little more compassion. We could all use a little more love. Would Jesus have listened to someone relate their problem and reply with “That doesn’t really matter, look at all those poor people over there with real problems.” No! He might have some gently chiding advice for them, but he’d never dismiss them. We shouldn’t either. (This is getting dangerously close to another issue that bugs me, Biblical judgment, but I’ll save that for another day.)
Everybody’s problems are real to them. Everybody’s situation, thoughts, feelings, and so on are just as valid as anyone else’s. Just because a person’s problem is occurring in a first-world country and just because they are able to obtain food (even if it’s hard) and have a place to live doesn’t mean that they aren’t struggling. It doesn’t mean that they don’t need support, love, and help. It doesn’t mean that they just need to “get over it” and realize that those in the third world are struggling in different ways. (And yes, different — maybe they live in extreme poverty but they have extended family to help them and they don’t suffer from depression. Different problems, but equally valid.)
The next time someone complains about something, try saying “That sounds hard” or “I’ll pray for you.” (Or just don’t say anything.) Don’t say “First world problem” — unless, of course, they are complaining about which set of luxury sheets are clean.