My friend, Franklin, in Bolivia cut his arm. Third world problem? First world problem? Or just a problem?
In the last week, I’ve heard the phrase “first world problem” about a dozen times. For some reason, the more I heard it mentioned, the more it bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on what was annoying me about it. Until now.
I think the phrase started out as a way to lampoon bratty rich people.“You know, like, I can’t decide if I should get red leather or black leather in my BMW. I worried about it all night. What will I do?” But lately, I think it has grown to include almost anything people think you shouldn’t complain about or that you need to put “in perspective.” The trouble is sometimes your problems are actually real problems and the phrase just shames you into feeling bad for simply feeling.
I think the other problem I have with the phrase is that our world has changed. The idea of a first, second, and third world was a product of the Cold War. First world described countries that were allied with the United States and had market-based economies. The second world described Eastern bloc, or communist countries. And the third world was a term used to describe pretty much everyone else (much of Africa and Latin America). After the Cold War and the revolutions in the late 80s, the second world started to disappear, but the terms first world and third world stuck. The words became a way to describe “rich” countries and “poor” countries. And therein lies my problem with the phrase.
There are people here in the United States facing poverty – 47 million to be exact (2014). They wouldn’t call going to bed hungry a “first world problem.” And there are likely millions of people in, say, Guatemala, whining from time to time about something stupid. And, of course, vice versa.
Here’s the truth. Everyone in the world has both kinds of problems – real problems and “problems” we sometimes whine about (but probably shouldn’t).
So, next time your car runs out of gas on the highway, your classmates call you names, you need a root canal, you are unfairly passed over for a promotion, you lose your lunch money, or you get sick on vacation…and someone flippantly tells you it is a “first world problem,” you don’t need to stop feeling bad. True, those things aren’t the end of the world and on the problem spectrum they aren’t severe, but you are allowed to feel no matter where you live.
Franklin (pictured above), I hope your cut arm doesn’t prevent you from playing soccer with your friends AND I hope your family gets the nutrition they need today to stay healthy.