First World Problems

The more I learn about history and the rest of the world, the more I realize how absurdly, staggeringly lucky I am.

24 million people in North Korea live under the heel of an all-consuming, utterly repressive regime. 10 million people in Somalia face the opposite problem, with no functioning government at all, plagued by waves of lawless violence as a matter of course.

80% of the world – that’s over five billion people – lives on less than $10 a day, less than $4,000 a year.

Meanwhile, my main worries in life are the flat tire I got yesterday morning (which I switched for a donut but still need to replace), the pressures of my job, and what I’m going to post on the blog.

It’s crazy when you think about it. It’s crazy when you don’t.

The phrase “first world problems” evolved to describe exactly this situation. It’s partly a joke, and partly a real awareness of the place that some of us occupy in the world. It’s a way of saying, “Wow, your remote control is broken and you’re out of batteries? How sad for you.

For me, the question has always been: what now? What am I supposed to do with the information that most of my problems are trivial compared to the rest of the planet? What am I supposed to think about myself? What should I do?

Here’s what I’ve found so far.

To start with: as with nearly all other aspects of life, worry doesn’t help. Neither does guilt. Stewing in anxiety is worse than useless. One of my favorite quotes from the Bible is “Whatever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.” If you’re worried, either do something about it or let it go.

With that in mind, there are two separate but parallel courses to take.

First: solve your own problems. Deal with your own life. The knowledge that your troubles are relatively minor for the most part, doesn’t actually make them disappear. Fix it. This one’s a no-brainer.

And second: if you really care about the larger issues out there, do something about it. Volunteer. Give to a group like Doctors Without Borders. Make a difference.

And if you have to feel something about that yawning gulf between yourself and everyone else? Feel gratitude, and feel compassion.

The world doesn’t need your pity, but it needs your help.

If I’m coming across as preachy right now, understand that I’m largely preaching to myself. Talking things over on the blog is my way of figuring them out. My brain still hasn’t figured out quite what to make of this world map hanging on my wall.

Do you ever think about this kind of stuff? Where have those thoughts taken you?


5 responses to “First World Problems

  1. I think about this stuff all the time, at the most unexpected and bizarre times. Like once, last summer, when my husband and I stopped to eat some Rita’s Italian Ice, and I was struck by the absurdity of our unnecessary calories when there are people who don’t get enough food to begin with. It happens when I eye a piece of chocolate and wonder if the cocoa was harvested by slaves. It happens when I read depressing articles about kids being tortured in Syria, or whatever happens to be the big news item of the week.

    I would like to take action in some way, but I’m still working on how. I’d love to get a job working for a non-profit; I’m not interested in making mega bucks and I’d like to devote forty hours a week to work I believe in, rather than work that just brings home a paycheck. But I haven’t found many non-profit job openings in the first place. I’ve thought about joining the Peace Corps or something, but I’m wildly unqualified. I donate money now and then, but it’s so passive that it doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything, so it doesn’t seem to fill the need to do something.

    The other thing I struggle with is where to focus, if I’m going to do something. There are so many issues in so many corners of the world that it feels like I have to just pick one if I’m going to get anything accomplished. But what one? And what, realistically, can I hope to do? Is raising awareness enough? Do online petitions really accomplish anything?

    So I guess I haven’t wrapped my mind around what to do myself. Probably the first step is to find an organization to get involved with, but again the question becomes which one? So the trick will be not letting the enormity of the problem stop me from finding some small way of doing something.

    • I agree that neither “raising awareness” nor signing online petitions seems like enough by itself, and I am likewise unqualified to do much real, direct good in foreign countries.

      The balance I’ve found is to volunteer locally and donate money globally. The volunteering (in my case, volunteering to tutor English and math) makes an immediate difference, which does some direct good and is very rewarding personally. Meanwhile, the donations (in my case, to Doctors Without Borders) do real good around the world, even if I don’t see it. I’ve found the best way to donate is to set up a monthly automatic deduction from a bank account. It’s good for you (since you don’t have to think about it anymore) and it’s good for them (since it gives them dependable income, which makes planning easier).

      If you find any other ways to help, I’d love to hear more.

  2. I’ve thought about these things before. This is what led me to me ‘world domination’ plan. The joke: World domination is an absolute afterthought. The main idea is to build a foundation of power built on people’s trust and finally DO something about these problems.
    Of course, to get things done one more person volunteering isn’t large enough scale for me. And in my eyes, volunteering doesn’t count unless it costs something for me. Something more than a bit of work, something more like my last strip of food while I starve.
    The way I see it, non-profit organizations can’t do enough. They’re a beautiful idea, and one that I very highly respect, but if they could expand a bit then they could do more good with each expansion.
    Am I too radical and/or crazy? Can you see where I’m coming from?
    Because I know one thing for sure. I do want to help if I can.

    • How would you “build a foundation of power based on people’s trust”? If you’re talking about a voluntary association, we already have that – the U.N. If you’re talking about an involuntary association – i.e. conquering – then that involves a lot of violence, and would be pretty unlikely to succeed anyway. I don’t think anyone really wants to do World War II again.

      “Volunteering doesn’t count unless it costs something for me.” Why? Shouldn’t the merit of volunteering be judged on the good it can do, rather than the cost involved?

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