These are the painful experiences, the gut-wrenching decision points, that arise from living life in a wealthy industrialised nation. Some classic First World Problems (or FWP for short) include: having so many songs on your MP3 player that the shuffle function never reaches the ones you most want to hear; the hassle of having to get your credit card out to provide the security code when you’re trying to shop online in a hurry; or when your garden is so long your wireless signal doesn’t quite reach the summerhouse.
This particular meme has been around for a few years now. While first recorded use of the phrase is in the lyrics of a song by nineties Canadian alt-rock band, Matthew Good Band, it didn’t make it onto our social networks until 2005. After a spike in interest in July 2011, it seems to have settled down to a gentle hum of tweets and hashtags, with the occasional flurry of concern over whether using the words ‘First World’ negates or adds to the assumed irony of the phrase.
I have my own FWPs, some of which genuinely keep me awake at night: problems of my own or my society’s making that include owning so much ‘stuff’ that moving home becomes a chore, worrying that I haven’t worked out what career I should pursue and having access to too much credit.
But some problems arise no matter what your personal circumstances: problems that affect or are a result of relationships with other people; fears for those you love; or loss of power or influence.
I used to think that these kind of problems could be equivalent, whether you lived in Manchester or Mumbai, New York or Nairobi. For instance wouldn’t someone’s worry about their home be the same whether it was going to be repossessed, demolished or destroyed? I naively believed that some of my FWPs might not seem so self-indulgent in comparison with the problems of people in less affluent parts of the world. Now I’m not so sure.
At this year’s Greenbelt I had the honour of introducing my friend Dieudonne Nahimana, a Burundian I’ve known for a few years now through my involvement with the charity Street Action. Burundi is not a very well-known country, even among the Greenbelt demographic. It surprised some people to learn that the more infamous genocide in Rwanda had involved clashes between the same two groups of people as that in Burundi, at around the same time. While the Rwandan genocide had left half a million people dead in only 100 days, the Burundian genocide had been less numerically devastating, but no less disastrous for the country and its people.
I knew that Dieudonne had been a victim of the genocide, that his father and many of his family had been killed, that he had been left homeless. It had become part of his story and I had become used to the words, if not the meaning behind them. But during his talk I heard these words anew, in particular his description of finding it in his heart to forgive the man that had killed his father. And not only forgive that man, but do something good for him as an expression of that forgiveness. Dieudonne went on to describe another more recent experience where he had to find the strength to forgive, “through God” he related, which had the room in rapt silence.
However it was at the end of his talk, when he took questions from those in the room, that he spoke directly to our experiences, to the people with FWPs, as if our problems were no different from his. “If you have someone in your heart that you have not been able to forgive, if this is weighing on your mind, then pray for the strength to forgive them and you will be free,” he told us. He made it sound so easy! “And go one step further: do something for that person. Because true forgiveness has to cost you something.” Ah, not quite so easy on reflection.
I thought of the people I needed to forgive, especially the people that may not know how heavy my heart feels when I bring them to mind. I thought of what they had done to me: bruised my ego or betrayed my flaws to the wide world. It was too generous of Dieudonne to compare his need to forgive the man who killed his father with my need to forgive the colleague that had hurt my feelings. But hearing that he had been able to drove a dagger into the heart of the real problem I face: the cost of my pride.
(Photo via Creation Swap)