The other day, while I was sitting in class, someone came in and sat in front of me. I overheard him complain to his friend about how his shower got way too hot that morning and his friend smiled and said, “First world problems,” and they both laughed. Now, I’m sure that we have all used this term before, but should it be used?
“First-world problems” usually refers to problems that a person has that are negligible or insignificant compared to those of others. If we take the term literally, then those “others” are in the “third-world.” Ok, but what about a homeless man living on the streets of Ann Arbor? Surely, nobody would have the audacity to tell this person they have “first-world problems,” even though they are very clearly living in a first-world country. So, we can safely say the poor are excused. Now what about a rich, white, teenage male whose mother just got diagnosed with cancer? Raise your hand if you have the nerve to scoff at any kid who might lose their mother.
Maybe the best way to tackle this first-world problem of trying to figure out just what the hell a “first-world problem” is, is by comparing it to a sister statement of the same sentiment—one that is even more familiar: “Hey! There’s kids starving in Africa right now!”
Never mind the weird unanimity of the “in Africa” part when we say it, as though Africa is just a desolate land filled with nothing but starving kids. People commonly employ this age-old saying with a wag of a finger every time they hear someone else complain about any issues they are having. But what are the real motives of the ones who say it?
One possibility is that we think telling a person about these starving kids in Africa will immediately relieve a person of their burdens when they realize that they aren’t starving in Africa as well. But this doesn’t make sense, since everybody already knows that children are starving in Africa and it’s not as though they just magically forget that when they have a pressing issue.
Perhaps we say it to instill humbleness in a person. This seems somewhat plausible, until you start to wonder how real this desire for everyone to be “humble” really is. Think about this: we all had a time in class when tests were being handed back and one person just couldn’t contain their excitement about getting an “A” grade. Remember how infuriated we got as we demanded more humbleness? Now imagine a scenario where you got an “A” and someone else yelps out excitedly about getting a “B” grade. Are you still demanding that that person be humble? I don’t think so. What we are really asking is for that person to not be better than us.
My guess is that we tell people they have “first-world problems,” or that there are kids in Africa starving, because we want to knock them down. Just like with the test scores, we are subconsciously trying to ensure as many people we know are a level below us. We don’t seek to diminish their burdens—we seek to diminish them.
Maybe we do it because we want to feel like our problems are the most important. The truth is that we often measure the weight of the importance of our lives by the importance of our problems. There is a reason that almost every fictional hero in our culture is an orphan. Yes, it is true that those starving children in Africa have worse problems, but telling people that when they are struggling won’t make them feel better and you know that from your personal experience.
Let us try our best to be happy for the kid cheering about his “A” even when we get a “B.”