First World Problems

So much popular terminology is offensive or degraded and does not need to become part of our vocabulary. But a phrase has popped up in the past few years that is actually helpful and brings some perspective to our occasional difficulties. That phrase is “First World problem.”


“First World” means we live in a country that is privileged: modernized, educated, prosperous, politically free and at peace. As Canadian educator and psychologist Jordan Peterson likes to point out, we in the West enjoy the highest and most broadly distributed living standards in the entire history of mankind. That’s not an overstatement; we are uniquely blessed.


Consequently, we have become accustomed to high living standards and raised our expectations accordingly. We assume that the comfort, convenience and excess we enjoy is ours by right and should always be accessible. It is easy then to lose our perspective and confuse discomfort with suffering, inconvenience with hardship, and loss with poverty. In other words, we overreact to minor irritations. Thus the tongue-in-cheek phrase First World problem is a reminder that, compared with the deprived and desperate lives of many people in the world, our problem is small.


Reality check: All things considered, is this frustration, setback or anxiety I am facing really that big of a deal?


Now to be fair, the COVID-19 pandemic has created severe and painful issues for many that should not be minimized. Those suffering the most materially were on the lower rungs of the economic ladder to begin with. But some have had their whole path of life redirected; others have lost loved ones without the closure of final goodbyes; many small businesses have collapsed, and major corporations will experience major downsizing. 


But before all this bad news burdens our spirits and colors our entire outlook on life, we need to ask ourselves: Am I experiencing a serious loss or merely a First World hiccup? To answer that honestly, I think we need to ask a broader question: What blessings do I still have?


While I am confined by the lockdown, I am enduring it in a home nicer than what most people on the planet have. While I can’t eat at my favorite restaurant, my fridge and freezer are still well-stocked. While my schedule has been severely altered, it has freed me to spend more time with my family. Continue this list by taking stock of your own situation. 


Gratitude is the antidote to taking blessings for granted and stressing over life’s setbacks. From the privations of prison, Paul wrote to the Philippians: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again ... not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philip. 4:10-13).