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.