By Elly V. Darwin, M.Ed., NCC
My wonderfully witty son-in-law, Josh, once posted a comment saying something like it’s a bummer when you realize your cherry pie isn’t warm enough—after you’ve added the ice cream on top. Cute comment, one I’d likely have forgotten soon after, were it not for the rest of it. He added: “A First World problem, for sure.” And that has stayed with me ever since.
It was as profound as it was lighthearted. Sure, there’s nothing like nice, warm, homemade cherry pie with a dollop of cold, refreshing ice cream on top, and this slice didn’t quite measure up. But wow, how many people in The Congo, Bangladesh, Syria, or any number—too large a number—of other economically troubled places in the world would give anything to be able to trade problems? For that matter, how many people in the world’s well-developed societies would love to deal with that?
Josh’s tongue-in-cheek comment about pie has given me pause, over and over, to consider the weight of things we call problems. And many times since, whenever I’ve complained about something, I’ve frequently drawn his same conclusion: Yep, that was a First World problem. Having the luxury of being able to label virtually all my problems the First World sort inevitably leads to the revelation of how incredibly fortunate I am.
Granted, regardless of where we live, or the lifestyle we maintain, some problems are truly serious. Death of a loved one, particularly when unexpected, is universally traumatic. A startling medical report can be life changing. A natural disaster can be devastating. But this article addresses the less serious stuff.
In the moment a problem is happening to us, we have a natural tendency to view it as more serious than it actually is. We may lose perspective about it or overreact to it. So, lukewarm pie aside, I invite you to consider a quick self-check for how to assess problems.
1. First of all, am I correctly labeling it? Is it really a problem, or just an inconvenience or minor annoyance? Apollo 13’s “Houston, we have a problem” was famously a problem. “This scarf doesn’t match my blouse,” not so much.
2. Am I overstating it? It seems words like disaster, emergency, crisis, and catastrophe are unnecessarily seeping into everyday usage. Those words are appropriate for things like EF5 tornados. A stain on a throw pillow is not a catastrophe. Pizza delivered a few minutes late is not a disaster. Hair that won’t curl the way you want is not a crisis. (By the way, my hair did not curl the way I wanted on my wedding day. Didn’t matter—charming event, and still happily married 30 years later.)
3. Am I crying wolf? I was once jolted out of a deep sleep early in the morning by a phone call. The distraught woman on the other end asked for my then-husband, and quickly added, “It’s an emergency!” My husband was out of the country at the time, and my first thought was that something terrible had happened to one of his children. It turned out she was calling because the piano player for her afternoon tea and fashion show had suddenly cancelled and she wanted my husband to fill in. Had I not been so groggy, and so shaken, I would have admonished her that needing a musician did not qualify as a genuine emergency.
4. How adverse is the effect? Will this problem send me, sirens blaring, to the ER? Will my life be ruined? Are other people, pets, or property in danger? Will my evening be ruined? Will I forever be branded a fashion idiot because I had to wear my second-choice shirt or shoes?
5. Here’s the kicker: Would other people gladly trade problems with me? Some people in Third World or war-ravaged countries don’t have enough to eat. They may not own more than one shirt, and they may not have any shoes. They may not even know what throw pillows are. And they’re probably not hosting any afternoon tea parties.
It's All About Perspective
It’s all about perspective. Isn’t it interesting that when a real disaster strikes—a hurricane, tornado, explosion, flood, or whatever—people are often heard to say, “Everything’s gone, but we’re OK.” They go on to say they’ll rebuild, they’ll deal with it and move on. They’ve suddenly been smacked in the head with what’s truly important and what’s not, and in many cases, they seem remarkably composed. Putting problems into proper perspective invariably leads to a shift in attitude.
When faced with problems, minor or severe, it is important to get to the flipside: maintaining an attitude of gratitude. However bad it is, it could be, or could have been, worse. Gratitude lends perspective and balance. It gives us something to latch on to. It gives us strength.
One of the easiest things to do when faced with a problem—particularly of the First World sort—is to slip into self-pity: “Everything’s going wrong!” “Why me?!” “This couldn’t have come at a worse time!” Self-pity weakens us and leads to emotional and physical stasis. Gratitude fortifies us and begins to show us a way out: “Well, not everything’s going wrong; in fact, some things are going really right.” “Why me? It doesn’t matter. I’m OK and I’ll deal with it.” “Actually, it could have come at a worse time, but it didn’t.”
I’m not saying this to brag, but I’ve experienced this personally. My husband and I lived near New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck, in 2005. Although our neighborhood didn’t flood, we got hit pretty hard with wrap-around winds. A tall pine tree in our front yard was snapped off about 4 feet above the ground and crashed through our roof (think karate chop!). I literally cannot count all the blessings from that event, but I’ll highlight a few:
It took a year to put our house back together, but we had a house to repair. Devastation was all around us, and we personally know people who lost everything. Katrina was a huge event—one I would not care to repeat—but we were so fortunate. In no way do we pity ourselves!
So the next time you encounter a problem, trivial or otherwise, here are some suggestions for dealing with it:
1. Identify it realistically. Is it a problem or a minor annoyance?
2. Put it in perspective. Seriously, how serious is it?
3. Look at the positive. It probably could have been worse, but it wasn’t.
4. Take appropriate action. Fix what you can, as soon as you can.
5. Get over it. Don’t dwell. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Learn from it and move on.
6. Be grateful. Trust me, the blessings are there if you’re willing to see them.
Oprah Winfrey has kept a gratitude journal for years, and encourages others to do the same. Not a bad idea. I remember a young girl saying she wrote in her journal that she was grateful for her glasses because, with them, she could read so much more than she could before she got them. She did not complain about needing them, or what other kids may have said about them. She was simply grateful that they opened up her world.
Perhaps we should keep a journal of all our First World problems. If we wrote them all down we’d soon see that, in the bigger picture, most of them are trivial and not worth getting upset about. For most of us reading this, First World problems will continue to be a part of our existence. Maybe we could begin by being grateful that we are in a First World environment and fortunate enough to have the luxury of First World problems.
I like iced coffee in the afternoon. I have to admit that one of my pet peeves is so-called “iced” coffee that is not a cold beverage—you know, when it’s just hot coffee poured over ice cubes, rendering it neither hot nor cold. I’m so bummed when I order iced coffee and receive a lukewarm drink instead. But wait, it gets worse: This always seems to happen when I order it to go, and I don’t discover this utter disaster until I’m already on my way and take my first sip. By then it’s too late to go back and berate the person who sold it to me and ask for my money back. So I just have to either drink it (yechh—disgusting!!) or toss it. As I’m driving along in my cute little sports car, I’ll be sure to brood about having just wasted a few bucks on a catastrophe. Never mind that it will not affect my financial ability to make it through the month. Man, hot-over-ice coffee just ruins my life!
Elly Darwin, M.Ed., NCC holds a master’s degree in counselor education and is a retired educator. She owns Clearheart Communications, LLC, and operates the website, ClearheartCommunity.com.
Images: World map in title: Pixabay / Tree in roof: the author / Author: WestRidge Photography
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