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Should We Feel Guilty About First World Problems?

If you’ve been on social media in the past few years, you might have noticed the increasing prevalence of one’s “first world problems.” There is a meme dedicated to them. It’s the one that features a distressed girl in tears and the text will speak on a problem that only comes with the privilege of living in the developed world. The meme seems to have resulted from a phenomenon of increasing social analysis to a point where people now face varying degrees of backlash for talking about their negligible problems. A person may also use the phrase in jest to acknowledge the triviality of his own problem: “I had to start squeezing my toothpaste tube from the bottom instead of the middle. First world problems!”

Day to day, we may get mildly frustrated with small things that occur to and around us, like running out of memory on our phones and or not having enough hangers for our clothes. Of course, these issues are fairly insignificant in that the quality of our lives is not worse off because of them. Some people will be overzealous in pointing out that many could only wish to have the issues that we have. Those people should probably stop.

The fact of the matter is that a majority of issues we face as citizens in developed countries will undoubtedly seem frivolous to the third world. Our issues with slow Internet connection, having to wake up before noon to get to class, and the impossibly long lines at Eagle’s Nest during the lunch rush, to name a few, will obviously pale in comparison to the fact that for some people--for many people, in fact--technology, education, and adequate food supplies are altogether inaccessible. Yet the case of whether or not we should feel guilty for finding our problems to be problems at all is not so black and white.

Many BC students take the opportunity to attend service trips where they are exposed to living conditions that would be considered uninhabitable in the first world. They return to our manicured campus and tend to get caught up in the typical plights of college students, like a grueling midterm season that constitutes 90 percent of the semester and a lack of variation in dining hall menus. To be sure, these aren’t the worst problems one could have, but we also don’t treat them as such, nor are we suddenly oblivious to the fact that the world is bigger than us. We should be allowed moments to view our own problems in the contexts of our own lives.

Disregarding the more glaring kinds of first world problems (like your wallet being too big for your pocket), we should not have to repent for the way we feel about our own experiences. Last semester, my laptop was rendered unusable due to a faulty video card. As a college student, living without a laptop for a week was incredibly disruptive to my workflow, especially if I wanted to work in my dorm or take notes with it in class. That sentence in itself reveals a plethora of privileges that I am granted from living in the first world. In the big scheme of things, the inconvenience of not having my laptop was completely inconsequential. Yet while my livelihood was not being threatened, as a college student, I was definitely frustrated with what felt like an impediment to my productivity in the midst of a busy week.

The list of first world problems we encounter is never-ending--and it’s okay to be irked by them. For our own sakes, we should not spend time constantly brewing over every little thing that goes wrong with our day. But, we also shouldn’t be made to feel guilty that we feel inconvenienced by them at all. We should not invalidate our experiences just because they are not centered around war, poverty, illness, and the like and we should not constantly look at them through such a scope. We’re allowed to find faults with our own first world experiences without immediately juxtaposing them to third world problems. Our everyday problems do not need to constantly be placed against the problems of the developing world, as they are incomparable to begin with. Furthermore, our frustration with our own inconsequential issues does not make us less empathetic to the plights of others. I can deem most public restrooms unpleasant and still be cognizant of the fact that indoor plumbing is a distant reality for others.

The most important thing is that we are capable of keeping the perspective that there are bigger issues out there. The existence and popularity of the “First World Problems” meme might even be indicative of the fact that our society has an awareness of how trivial our problems are. Still, that doesn’t have to entail letting our own feelings fall by the wayside. It’s a matter of balance. We should not be all consumed by our own problems that we are oblivious to the rest of the world, and at the same time, we should not have to be constantly consumed by every other tragedy that occurs in the rest of the world.