“First World Problems”

Today’s post is unabashedly meta.

That phrase, “first world problem” has been kicking around my social media streams for a while. I *think* it started out as a reminder that whatever it was that was bugging you, you should have a bit of perspective on it. “Can’t get my phone to connect to my internet and my library books are due so I’m going to have to phone to get them to renew in person.” “First world problem.”

But then it became (as these things are wont to do) dismissive. People started making up mocking fake “problems” and adding, “Wah!” to it. “Bought a latte this morning and they were all out of cinnamon so I had to use *already ground* nutmeg.” Things like that.

This seems like an ideal time to link to an xkcd comic:

This morning, I found myself standing in a partially disassembled kitchen, unable to remove the faucet, unable to get the faucet to stop dripping, (and by dripping, I mean coming out of the counter and spraying water in a never-ending fountain) and with the drawers removed so that I could reach the cut-off valve because they did something profoundly weird when they installed the plumbing. No running water in the kitchen, can’t find the o-rings, child hanging around saying, “Mummy!” every two minutes, and due to a strange choice of the previous home-owner, I can’t just replace the faucet because… oh, it’s a long and drawn-out story. And then I thought, “I guess this is still a first-world problem.”

This is, however, where I draw the line on perspective. That’s it, right there. Running water. Hot and cold. On demand. I demand running water.

Any solution to the world’s problems must include running potable water in the kitchens of the world. Heated, so that we can keep our homes sanitary without having to drag water from the pump to the stove. I add those as parameters to my “ideal world”.


A couple of weeks ago, I told somebody I was going to write a post and call it “First World Problems”. I was going to start it like so: “Dead of a stress-induced heart attack at 46 is still dead.” Because there are problems of the industrialized world that are real problems. Alienation. Disaffectation. Disconnection from nature and the life-giving aspects of labour. Chronic high levels of stress and anxiety. Diabetes. Pollution, loneliness, the industrialization of everything including love. You know. Problems.

This morning’s experience gave me (as all my experiences tend to) another moment of insight. “First world problem,” I thought, as I struggled to get the water running in my kitchen again. Meaning, “all my habits are entirely reliant on technology, and when the technology fails, my ability to cope with the world around me deteriorates rapidly.” I kept finding myself turning the tap even when I was in the middle of fixing it. “Right. Still no running water. Just like 2 minutes ago.”

This reality applies not only to our lattes and information technology, but also to our water, food, transportation, energy, and to our ability to heat and cool ourselves as necessary. During the 2003 blackout, we discovered that our phone didn’t work when the power went out, so I had no way of calling home to say where I was. Another first-world problem, caused by the fact that I was working 100 km from home on a daily basis. And the gas pumps in between were also powered by the missing electricity. And the traffic lights weren’t working, so traversing the intervening city was a major undertaking. Our “world” is full of these unseen systems that allow things to happen magically.

It comes down to this: We are entirely dependent for the basic necessities of life on systems that are incomprehensible, unfeeling, and entirely outside of our control. We have no direct relationship with our life systems and no back up plan. And then… our life systems and our lifestyle systems are entirely enmeshed. This is how my car gets all my money. Even though I know it isn’t my priority, I can’t get at the things that are unless I maintain it… but then I can’t afford to get at the things that are my priority. And on and on and on.

First world problem.

And when I thought of it that way, the levels of anxiety that these (even minor) failures cause become more transparent. We live in a giant black box with a zillion points of contact, and all we know about it is the stories we’ve been told. At any time, the machinations of strangers in suits, playing dice games with dodgy mortgages could strip us of our live savings and eliminate our carefully planned retirements. Our security is illusory, and we are enraged to discover the cracks. A good time to remind ourselves, but for perspective, not dismissal.

First World Problem redux (1)

One day a few months ago my mother was visiting. (Hi, Mom!) I don’t remember what the topic was, but we were sitting on couches in a heated room, and the lights were on, and the water was not disconnected. It was probably a money thing. And she sighed, and said, “Oh, it’s a hard life.” (2) And I thought about it a moment, and said, “No. A hard life is when you have to live on a garbage dump and spend your days digging for enough plastic to buy some rice to feed your children. This is just an irritating life.” Which she conceded. But whatever it was, it really was irritating.

Here’s the deal: we’re still living in these bodies, and these technologies we have come to rely on are the only way we really know how to take care of them.

Water? Tap!
Food? Grocery store! (or sometimes garden, but if you’ve been reading along, you know that when the zombies come, I’m still in trouble.)
Money? Uh. If you solve this one, let me know. (3)

So, let us not use the phrase to pretend that there are no problems in the first world. Because those problems, these problems, these are the things that are causing the BIG problems. (4) We have lost perspective, yes. But we are still alive, and we still have needs. So if you catch yourself saying, “first world problem” under your breath, check in. Is it really not a problem? Are you using the phrase to gain a sense of scale, reality? Or are you trying to dismiss a need of your body or spirit, because you think you “should be” better than that? You know, don’t be too hard on yourself. But you might be willing to concede the small points as just not worth getting your knickers in a knot.

But running water? I stand by my requirement for running water. Even in more than one room in my house. (5)

1. That means restored/brought back, not summed up. Because every good blog post should have a glossary.
2. One of my favourite mom quotes is, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” Hmmm… Things I learned from my Mom. Good blog post, no?
3. Traditionally, at least ’round these parts, it used to involve these things they called “jobs”, but those things are as scarce as hen’s teeth. I hear they were a recent (and apparently ephemeral) phenomenon, anyway.
4. That’s another entire post about consumerism as a balm for anxiety. Let’s not go there this time.
5. I also have a goal of donating at least $500 to UNICEF this year. Currently at about $105. Because I want safe potable running water for everybody, not just me.


5 thoughts on ““First World Problems”

  1. I apparently exist to be the choir you are preaching to. I’ve always detested that phrase, “first world problem,” almost always spoken by someone who has no idea what that designation actually means (here’s a great description http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/third_world_countries.htm). But most importantly, yes, so utterly dismissive of the fact that this IS the world we are living in and it doesn’t make any more sense than saying “21st century problem” or “North Carolina problem” or “problem related to the month of March.” Yes, I would have different problems if I weren’t me. And so what? I’m already me, that job has been taken. That doesn’t absolve me of the need to have a conscience, live kindly, be generous, but I live in the world I live in. The kindest take I can have on that little phrase is that it would be more honest if the person saying it would just have the balls or ovaries to say what they really mean – “would you just freaking stop whining and get on with it?” – but “first world problem” sounds so much more socially acceptable, doesn’t it?
    By the way, this is a charity that gives 100% of all donations to water projects http://www.charitywater.org/donate/. Just thought you might like it.

    • Ah, yes. I nearly posted a link to the charitywater page myself. I’m having a little moment of concern regarding the word, “charity”. which would also warrant another entire post. Sigh. If only I didn’t *think* so much.

      • Well, the first definition I found was “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity ” and the derivation “Middle English charite, from Anglo-French charité, from Late Latin caritat-, caritas Christian love, from Latin, dearness, from carus dear; akin to Old Irish carae friend, Sanskrit kāma love”. That sound good to me, and I hope the poor word gets used well and can take off that silly condescending coat that’s been draped over it.

  2. Pingback: On My Mind: 04.02.12

  3. Pingback: Temporary Solutions « The Practical Dilettante

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