first world problems

I love this phrase. (I don’t love that it cuts the world apart into an economic & demographic hierarchy, but I do love how it can be used in this instance to bridge a gap…) In my search these past few years for ‘what is funny?’ a phrase like this is a treasure to stumble upon. It does what I am asking Comedy to do, what I deem “good” comedy is capable of — to communicate the truth in a way that people actually enjoy the process of grok-ing in the depth & breadth of said truth.

A dilemma I know I face, & that I hear others ‘on the path’ (of “waking up”) describe in their own lives, is how to balance my own “woke-ness” with the varying levels of awakened-ness surrounding me. What to say, if anything, about the ab/use of water, the blatant racism, the unconscious perpetuation of genocide, poverty, ecocide, etc. etc. etc. that I am suddenly awake to all around me, even among those I thought I knew?

How much do I say? Or do I instead focus on portraying the worldview-I’ve-woken-up-to through my actions? How have my values seemed to shift from those I call my family? What’s the balance between loyalty to those I love (or thought I did, but now I even question ‘love’) & my alignment with another way of Be-ing? I feel I’m operating from a different set of ethics. Is that true?

As part of the podcast that Chas Jewett & I put together, based on her phrase & practice of “whitepeoplewhispering”, we interviewed Sara Thomsen who was another of the core walkers on the Missouri River prayer walk. One night after a long day of walking & over some omelettes I had made in our RV kitchen, Sara shared something with us that is a beautiful example of dancing between “them” and “us”, between “then” & “now”. I think of this letter she crafted as ‘elegant’ because she aligned on the shared values with her family & then went on to point out the dissonance, as she experienced it, between those values & their actions. The incongruence between their stated beliefs and their actions, particularly in relation to voting in a new US president, made her so ill-at-ease that her love of justice came face to face with her love for her family. You can read that letter here on the WPW blog page. There’s a link there to listen to our conversation on white people whispering their own, which was really lovely in so many ways, except technically. Due to some things we are still ignorant/incapable of fixing in the audio, we have kept it on the shelf until now. At the very least, go to 52:25 to hear Sara read her letter to us.

Another friend was recently struggling with her own dissonance while visiting her family in England. She has known them to be fair & loving people, yet was appalled that they were laughing at racist jokess, which means they’re colluding with racism on some level, no? Yes.

Yet, how much is it our duty & place to nudge them? Is it more our duty because we care? Or less? Can we communicate any & all of this from a place of great care & love for all? How do we care for ourselves in the process of investigating & then possibly interacting?

So, I have found this phrase “first world problems” to be a fantastic way to bridge these seeming-separate paradigms of my (re)new(ed) sensitivity to our all-oneness, with the seeming-parasitic/viral surge of consumption, poisoning & peril. When I hear someone  complaining about flight delays, or about getting sunburned while on tropical holiday, or about having tired feet from shopping all day, I find I have little to no empathy. I struggle in that social moment to know how to respond. How helpful is it to get into a hierarchy of whose dire circumstances hold more sway & deserve more compassion? Yet. And yet. Some things are just much much harder than others. Do we really need to spell them out? They’re everywhere–the horrors people survive are the meat-stock of the news media.

In gaining a wider perspective, I cannot help but be thankful. When I feel in any way sorry for myself, there is the care that is needed to self-soothe, to heal & to grow onwards, but when it wallows into self-pity that loses sight of the wider perspective it’s all-ways because I’ve lost track of my deep gratitude for the privileges I enjoy. And how could I possibly enjoy all that I am gifted in this life–now that I have the eyes to see it all–without also feeling an emerging sense of responsibility to do what I can to bridge the gaps for others to enjoy the same? For what I now call Privileges could one day –if we wake up & so choose– become basic human rights for all. I’m talking about privileges like feeling safe in one’s skin & having the financial security to feed, house & clothe oneself. Right now only the privileged are privileged to enjoy these things. And I am left wondering how I can make a difference.

So it’s small. It’s not going to bring clean water to those in Flint, Michigan or stop the violence against women & children living in virtual war zones, right next door. But it’s something. So I start here.

I say, playfully,

First world problems! We’re lucky, eh? That this is the worst of our day?

If it’s not playfully, lovingly done, it will bomb & lead to walls being flung up between my values & theirs. Because I will be judging them. Instead of engaging the way I would with a child who doesn’t know any better by playfully showing them new things, I am berating them for not-knowing. I’ve heard from some folks –not in the dominant white privileged culture– that it is not their responsibility to do this. They are tired & so often are struggling to survive us. It feels beyond them to love us despite our unconscious perpetuation of their oppression. Fair enough. White people must whisper their own.

I have heavily resisted being called white. It’s not that I’m not white, it’s that I have struggled to see how sticking with color labels will help us move beyond them. However, I have also seen that I cannot let go of something I don’t know I’m holding onto in the first place. I say this to my students on (& off) the mat a lot. Unless you are conscious of your shoulders being hiked up around your ears it’ll only be accidental that they release. So unless I explore all the ways in which I am white & fully own it, I can’t let go of it.

In this vein, I begin to see subtler & subtler ways I have subconsciously supported white male dominance in this world. All of this terrain is like a treacherous No-Man’s Land, through which only a Wonder Woman could cross unscathed, deflecting all hits aimed at her. I have already been hit by both “sides” so necessity is making of me some sort of investigative comedian. This is my suggestion (& I know I didn’t make this phrase up so all gratitudes to whoever did!):  First world problems!

Play with putting your values into action with those you love the most. Look for the common ground & speak from that, as Sara did in her letter to her family. And I would suggest doing this as much for your own sake as for what you imagine to be theirs. In fact, do it entirely for your own peace of mind, because as much as we like to assume responsibility for others, they are ultimately their own beings responsible for their own fine selves. The only thing I have any level of control over is myself & even that is often a slippery slope. I have seen levels of depression seep into me from feeling at odds with the wealthy blindness that causes people to not-see how their wealth, their lives as they know them, have been built on the countless lives of others, human & otherwise.

There is a repressed dissonance in us as we try to keep it all smooth & copacetic with family. We are denying a truth. Our reality is that we’ve woken up from our dream to find these truths staring us down. I know from decades of blurting things out artlessly, how blurting is not as elegant as Sara’s letter. Blurting alienates, divides, judges. Part of this separation process is necessary for me to see more clearly “not this-not that”, neti-neti.

How can I know who I am & what I’m willing to stand for

unless I know who I’m not & what I’m no longer willing to stand for?

We do this in adolescence & however long after–we specifically individuate ourselves from our families. And maybe we weren’t encouraged to do this then so doing it now feels like a betrayal of them. Or maybe some of our family have louder voices so it launches into a battle right quick, which we wish to avoid.

In all of this, & through all of this, gratitude is my saving grace. Love is my last leg.

To set this post to rest for now, here’s a conversation between a Pueblo chief & Carl Jung:

“See,” Ochwiay Biano said, “how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.”

I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.

“They say that they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.


This is a small shard of what needs to be explored more & understood better– how to “think Indian” without appropriating their wisdom, their ways, their right to life.


Actually, most lastly, no image came to mind for this post. So if something occurs to you, pass it along 🙂

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2 thoughts on “first world problems”

  1. “First World Problems”— my neighbor recently asked for a few minutes extra before we left for a class we both take. Her ” jell” fingernail had detached from her nail. She didn’t complain but explained the delay by saying “I have a first world problem”. She had heard me say it and realized how unimportant it was in the general scheme of things. I think it’s healthy to be able to express gratitude for all that we have and share the plentitude as best we can, and realize the perspective it gives us.

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