Two weeks ago, while getting one of my sons ready for some bedtime reading, the house went dark. I stifled a curse. As I navigated down steps in the pitch black, I didn't stifle my frustration: "Are you kidding me?!" While we were accustomed to losing power during our Midwestern summer storms, losing power during October drizzles was new.
Amid my stomps and utterances of protest, I got the other kids settled with flashlights while I called the electric company. It could be hours, they said. Hours, at least, was better than days, the usual amount of time our power liked to take off for vacation. But still, I took to the Twitterverse to voice my displeasure, to air my complaint, to share my pain.
But this time, I did so with some reservation. Because the last time I did—this past summer, when our power took its usually days-long hiatus, when all I needed was some tea and sympathy—I got slapped with a pesky meme instead.
Once upon a time, seeing #firstworldproblem—a snarky Twitter hashtag that's since spawned websites and YouTube clips—at the end of a shallow Twitter-plaint made me laugh and stop to think. I came to appreciate that when my favorite coffee shop ran out of chai, the sarcastic hash-tag phrase floated through my brain and kept my annoyance in check.
I also came to value #firstworldproblem as a "teachable moment" tool for my kids. When they had thrown back their heads in disgust as they stood in front of the pantry lamenting "nothing to eat" because they were sick of Chips A'Hoy, I found instructing them in the fine art of #firstworldproblem worked better than the "starving children in China" rhetorical strategy that parents of yore used (to little effect—I still don't eat peas).
Indeed, #firstworldproblem has done much good in the way of helping us remember that no matter what challenges and heartaches we face, most of them seem quite small compared with the global problems that starve people of the most basic necessities of life. It's a fun way to acknowledge our spoiled Western natures and catch ourselves mid-tantrum. #firstworldproblem is a lovely reminder that instead of mumbling and grumbling, we ought to be doing a bit more thanking.
I've come to hate the meme.
More specifically, losing power for days last summer forced me to hate it. Because when I posted my complaint—my genuine frustration at not having power—a "friend" smacked a #firstworldproblem on my Facebook feed. One simple hashtag—one that once had the power to illuminate my own self-centeredness and help me recognize my blessings—now pushed me to a place of shame. And that ain't good.
It's not that I should be proud of complaining, mind you. But I thought of this again last week as Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast. Certainly the families and business owners still without power nine days later are disadvantaged and understandably frustrated. Many East Coasters are now filling out FEMA forms and finding other shelter because their oceanfront homes are unlivable; many can't get to work because their train lines don't run. But the reality is, these are all #firstworldproblems. Electricity will be restored. Commuters will return to work. Destroyed homes will be rebuilt or replaced. And yet, sending a #firstworldproblem to any in Sandy's wake would be stupid—and cruel.
We need to be careful about throwing around the #firstworldproblem meme. Speaking for myself, not having electricity meant I could not work. I could not write. I could not earn desperately needed money for food and bills and medical expenses for my family. Being unable to provide for my family is not merely a first-world problem. Nor is losing a home or job opportunities—even if it does happen in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. These are human problems. And having those problems minimized via a #firstworldproblem smack-down didn't feel great. Nor was it helpful—to anyone.
I am all for us helping one another stay in check of our emotions, of our wants and needs and greed. But I'm also for us sharing each other's burdens, and coming clean with things that annoy us without fear of belittlement, which is what #firstworldproblem often does. Even when it comes from ourselves.
Sometimes our first-world problems are still problems enough to derail us—and not just when hurricanes hit. Sometimes even distress at not having chai or being sick of Chips A'hoy signals a deeper hunger that's worthy of lament. Being too quick with the #firstworldproblem can communicate that nothing that happens in the first world is actually a problem. And that's a problem, because it's not true.
Jesus tells us that in this world, we will have troubles. Not just the poor among us, not just those in certain parts of the world. These words are not just the disenfranchised and the oppressed. They are words for us all.
Knowing and remembering problems that many of us will never face—problems like famine, disease, oppressive political regimes, violence, and genocide, to name a few—is important. And catching ourselves when we get bent out of shape over the comparably trivial matters is wonderful. But shaming ourselves, and others, over hardship is not. Attaching #firstworldproblem can be funny—and appropriate—but it never actually solves any of the world's problems.
What it can do is serve as a the ice-breaker that starts conversations about the actual problems, stresses, worries, frustrations, and pain that so often lead to our surface complaints. It can be the perfect tool to go ahead and lament with one another about the real troubles in our lives—while staying mindful of those whose problems are far greater.