To not worry so much, about worrying

by Cheney — February 28, 2012

Illustration by my lovely pal –

I rank 49,561,166 on the Global Rich List.

That may not sound like much, but in a world with approximately 6 billion people, it puts me in the top 0.82% in terms of income. And it makes me think twice before whining about my budget when 99.18% of the population is getting by on less than I am. Of course, more money doesn’t always equal a better life, but I’m also young, healthy, able-bodied and live in a country with good medical care, access to clean water and few imminent threats to my safety. I should probably never complain about anything ever again.

The #firstworldproblems hashtag is undeniably popular at the moment. I’ve used it more than once to flag self-awareness of being an ungrateful sod for hating my smartphone or feeling miserable in secure employment because there are people in the world dealing with poverty, famine and armed conflict. Be happy you don’t have Real Problems! it says. After all, you do have all of your limbs and a place to sleep at night.

But I started thinking about it more seriously when a friend linked to Teju Cole’s series of tweets about the hashtag. Cole points out that #firstworldproblems creates a false dichotomy between the problems of people in the ‘first world’  and those in developing countries. After all, is it not impossible to imagine that someone who struggles to feed their family might also get annoyed by spam email, their daily commute, or poor internet connectivity? Or that living in a poorer country means you spend all your time thinking about that and nothing else?

It’s a salient reminder that people’s lives, all people, are complex and full of worries big and small, no matter where they live. Remembering to be grateful for what you have is always worthwhile, but if you start evaluating your right to complain on the basis of hierarchy, you’ll soon discover that just about anyone can find somebody doing it tougher than themselves.

And even if your worries seem small, voicing them does not define you. The first piece I ever read about war correspondent Marie Colvin was in an article in Vogue about modern women’s work wardrobes *. She talked about changing her style to match a recently acquired eye patch (the result of losing an eye to a shrapnel wound in Sri Lanka). She also mentioned how she tried, if possible, to wear nice underwear whenever she could, since she spent most of her time on assignments living pretty rough. She even once filed a compensation claim with her employer, the Sunday Times, when East Timorese rebels took off with some of her nicest La Perla items.

Getting annoyed that your lingerie was stolen in a warzone might sound shallow, but if you wanted to argue that this was the kind of person Marie Colvin was, you’d have a tough time making a case for it. She devoted a 25-year long career to bearing witness to the suffering of others in some of the most dangerous places in the world and making sure their stories got told. The risks she took ultimately ended her life, in a rocket attack in Syria last week, and very few people have argued, even before her death, that she was anything other than deeply compassionate and incredibly courageous.

Complaining and wanting is not a right you get from having the bigger problem, it’s  just a part of being human.  It only becomes problematic if we let our issues overwhelm us, and lose the ability to ever put it aside and be generous to the needs of others. How you act and how you treat others in the everyday course of life, and not what you feel like venting about from time to time, first-world problem or otherwise, is a much better measure of the kind of person you are.

*I read this piece about eight years ago at a hair salon, so no link. But I’ve since found it mentioned here and here. Marie Colvin was amazing. Seriously, go read about her.

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  • Bridget

    Cheney, this is an amazing first post! Welcome to the fold… I see good things in the future!

    I love that you found such a profound article in Vogue magazine while you were sitting in a hair salon. It just helps exemplify that you can often find meaning and importance in the most unlikely places, you just have to be open and receptive to knowledge from a variety of sources. And that includes the validity of our feelings and experiences whether we live in a first world country, or not.

    • Cheney

      Every now and then, Vogue or Marie Claire runs a well-written article about an interesting person. It’s enough to warrant the occasional flip-through at the salon 🙂 That particular article really stuck in my mind though, because I was probably about 19 and really wanted to be a journalist. I’m glad I found evidence of other people having read it, and wasn’t just making it up!

  • JoAnna

    First: Marie Colvin was indeed amazing. Secondly: very much enjoyed this piece on first/second/third world problems and how the importance lies not in voicing our annoyances/pains, but in not letting them get the better of us. Good reminder to file away the next time I’m sitting in gridlock traffic in an old black and white taxi for the better part of two hours when it’s pushing 38 degrees in the shade. Bless.

    • Cheney

      I’m having the opposite problem over here – it’s supposed to be warm and instead it’s been raining so heavily for the last week that I could just about swim to work. It’s hard to convince myself my day’s not ruined by waiting endlessly at the bus stop, getting splashed by passing cars. But it all passes and clothes dry.

  • Kathleen

    This is a brilliant post Cheney. I think, with most people, if they never mentioned their “first world problems”, I might begin to doubt their authenticity. Expressing frustration at times is all part of being genuine with people. As you have so eloquently pointed out, being a generous and loving person has more to do with what we do than what we don’t do. That is to say, if we never rant but we also never give, what good are we to anyone?

  • Nifferdesign

    How am I in the top 6th percentile in the world. I’m less broke then I used to be but compared to most people I know personally I’m still pretty broke-ish. Still I’m well aware of my tendency to gripe about my first world problems, my job, my mostly healthy but annoying family… the list goes on. I think, for me, the trick is acknowledging life for the mixed blessing it is and being able to live in your own life but see outside your own head.

  • I like this post. And I’ll have to read up on Marie Colvin.

    As a person raised in the first world and now living in the third world (albeit with a considerably better life style than most in Ethiopia), I can attest to the need to complain. It varies daily for me and often gets put in perspective when I see someone who has layered their crippled body in old rubber tires to pull themselves along the road.

    You can’t NOT complain about things that irk you in daily life. But it should be balanced with those things that you are grateful for. If you no longer complain, you are probably without hope that things will improve – a sad state, indeed.