I didn’t used to mind the phrase “First World Problems.” I agree, the fact that they’re out of gingerbread donuts is a shallow thing to get upset about. It is, as Urban Dictionary defines the term, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”
A poet friend of mine hates the phrase. He finds it hollow and reductive. The more we argue about it, the more he convinces me. “First World Problems” is part of the vocabulary of cynicism. Like “stuff white people like” or hipster racism, the phrase is fueled by the neoliberal armchair activist. It’s a language that owns privilege while disowning personal participation in social change. It’s defensive speech. By calling my frappuchino a “thing white people like,” I preempt the dialogue, so that I can’t be accused of being “racist” because I’ve already admitted my own self-awareness. Or by calling NPR a “thing for white people,” I assume people of color won’t–can’t be–interested in the same things I am. It’s a trendy speech pattern, a sophisticated type of gaslighting. It’s a conversation that says, “Look, I wouldn’t say this to a person in the Third World because I’m enlightened and aware of global suffering, but since I move in isolated circles of privilege, you must be in on the joke so let me explain my narcissism to you in such a way that you can’t fault me for being narcissist because I’m so conscious of my own social location.”
The term “First World Problems” seems to come from the 1995 song “Omissions of the Omen” by Matthew Good Band. The lyrics are an expression of humility, an awareness that social inequality breeds revolution.
The term is rooted in a critique of capitalism, but has been manipulated into a distancing mechanism that dehumanizes the Third World. In the vocabulary of the First World, it means: “poor people are so concerned with meeting basic needs that they don’t understand the anxiety or emotional difficulty of being in an industrialized environment.”
It places poor people at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and locates us in the oh-so-sophisticated existential quandaries of esteem and belonging. It’s only reinforced by the images for Maslow’s theory, which is a pyramid, making us the “conscious minority” who are so much more brilliant and self-aware than the rest. Like poor people never get frustrated at small things. Like nobody watches TV in the Third World. Like social anxiety is a luxury item. Like wanting to look good is an elite desire. Like people living on a dollar a day never get frustrated by the small things that delay their hopes and plans for the day.
This week I read an article in Geez about a woman trying to cope with her First World Problems. She writes about her frustration that her home renovations are delayed because of her European vacation and how her inability to cope with First World Problems are the key source of her lifelong depression. She writes about the struggle to find coping strategies for depression. Like depression and coping strategies only happen above a certain level of Maslow’s hierarchy.
I don’t want to abolish the phrase. I’m not polemical or absolutist about First World Problems. It’s a useful term, at times, and can be a coping strategy, a reminder not to sweat the small stuff when your blood pressure starts to rise. My objection is to the vocabulary of Can’t-Tell-Me-Nothin’ Neoliberalism. The way (white) privilege has developed a vernacular without vulnerability or admission of personal responsibility. We don’t occupy our own sub-category of pain-beyond-pain.
Your First World Problems are still problems. Your day gets ruined by small, petty circumstances. You get mad. That’s not unique to your social location. Own your problems as problems, as broken pieces you’re working through, even if it is just a gingerbread doughnut.
As a pastor, most of what I deal with day-to-day is Third World Problems: people rushing home in order to get the kids to soccer practice; teenagers who can’t come to mini-golf because of marching band practice; grandparents who wish their kids didn’t live two hours away. These problems are important. They’re the tiny tests of our character that prepare us for the bigger tests with higher stakes. They’re the patterns that lay the groundwork for our bigger problems: the family conflicts, the financial struggles, the unexpected pregnancies, the alcoholism and the eating disorders. I don’t tell parishioners “First World Problems don’t count as pastoral care.” Exactly the opposite! If we’re in this together, I wanna know your problems, the miniscule and the mountainous. Problems are still problems. They’re things you’re identifying and working through. I’d much rather hear your problems than alienate you into hashtagging them with faux-vulnerability because they’re too trivial to say to anyone in person.
Tell me your First World Problems. Only–cut out the adjectives.