Empathy, Self-Awareness


We live in a wonderful day in age. Our global culture is growing and changing at an alarming rate – one undeniable catalyst for this change was the unprecedented exponential growth of technology. The human race has always been insatiably curious and each new generation has crashed through seemingly impossible barriers with the characteristic passion that makes us who we are.

The claim that things are wonderful seems difficult to agree with if you have even the smallest dedication to following current events, but it’s important to remember that the news is driven by what sells and bad news simply sells more papers.

Our global culture is evolving in a positive direction overall, but news travels much faster now so you get to hear about terrible things while they’re still happening. This is new to us in the most recent set of generations and can easily make it seem as if there are more terrible things going down.

While there are countless terrors going on in the world there are an equally countless number of progressive and peaceful developments going on at the same time. The world is not as you fear it to be, nor is it a rosy cocoon in which we safely rest. It is everything good and bad all at once and your perception of it is what colours your opinion of it – and you do get to choose how you perceive this chaotic and beautiful life.

As a man that has been born and raised in Canada I have had the good fortune to live a very safe and privileged life. Simply by being a resident of this country I am a part of the one percent of the most fortunate souls on the planet. My set of problems through my years on this planet are not at all the same as somebody living in a very different situation – a war-torn country, for example. Of course every country on the planet has its own people on the down and out, but for the most part we have it pretty good here.

Many of my worries and troubles have been what has been coined as “first world problems.” I get to enjoy a life with enough safety and security to moan and complain about a restaurant forgetting to put onions on my burger.

This, of course, is a more extreme example of pettiness, but even the people that have more serious problems here, like their house burning down, are still supported by a community with enough resources and services available to weather a storm like that without much risk of that leading to my premature death.

It’s not to say that people worrying about “first world” concerns are petty. In fact, that’s the whole point of what I’m writing about today. Problems are problems are problems, from the big to the very small.

Absolutely everybody that has ever lived has had to deal with a complex and never ending set of problems, and these are in direct proportion to your life’s circumstances. When all of your basic needs are met and you’ve never known a life where you have to struggle just to survive, your phone losing its data connection and deleting all of your pictures is actually a big deal.

I’ve heard the message many times from people that do understand there are much worse things in the world – don’t worry about it, there are children fighting on the front lines of a war halfway around the world! Finish your supper, there are starving children that would be lucky to have your meal!

That’s true, and it is terrible. But that message usually doesn’t connect enough to significantly change someone’s perspective. First of all, it’s too big a jump from the problem at hand. Although our ability to imagine ourselves in these people’s shoes may bring a swell of empathy, it doesn’t change somebody’s baseline understanding of suffering like a lightswitch.

It’s true that paradigm shifts can happen quickly but usually only by people looking to have their mind changed. The door to new ideas has to be open before those ideas can take root in someone’s worldview. And I can tell you that when nine year old Tammy is not eating her vegetables because she’s nervous about her upcoming choir recital, painting a picture of starving children does little to address her worries. Not only does it not connect with her own personal history, it’s communicates to her that other people’s problems are more important.

It is critical for people to learn to identify, talk about, and work through their problems and pressuring them about some hypothetical down-in-the-gutter situation that doesn’t exist inside of their current realm of concern doesn’t offer any relevant food for thought. Addressing them as if they shouldn’t be problems in the first place dismisses their importance and sends the message that their concerns are not a priority.

Listening to others worries is important in any kind of interpersonal relationship, but a sticky part here is that there are people that seem obsessed with complaining about small things that nobody wants to listen to. We all know someone that spouts out obscenities over seemingly trivial things.

But the bright side to having to listen to people become furious that the tee-shirt kiosk sold out of their size while they were at a concert downtown is that it’s a sign of our wonderful and nurturing culture. The terrible things that happen to us are not terrible with respect to the truly terrible things in this world and each cuss directed at an outdated smartphone opening an application too slowly is a reminder that we have the luxury of complaining about such things.

If you live a first world life like I do then you do have the luxury of luxury. And along with this comes a proportionately harmless set of concerns. We get to worry about our car breaking down and needing an expensive repair, and we get to regret having ordered something new on the menu that ended up tasting terrible.

What a wonderful life that these can be such attention arresting events. I do have my own set of problems to solve that would be of absolutely no concern to a homeless man in the poorest part of a country riddled with murder and corruption. And because my problems are those of the privileged first world there was a time when I thought that maybe they should not be causing me any stress given the comparison to the luxury in which I live.

But no matter how much I logically thought that should be true, this was not successful in persuading my emotions to let go of it all. As a race we are problem solvers – we are unmatched at our ability to identify patterns and make adjustments to our world and we need something to fuel that engine. Not only did my attempts to devalue my problems not offer me emotional freedom, it actually did the opposite by fostering guilt for my seemingly empty problems while actively not doing anything towards solving them.

The seed that was planted by that realization did bloom, however. The growing sprout that was left behind was gratitude. I learned that you don’t have to abandon your concerns, but be grateful for them. Be grateful for the growth you’ve already achieved in your life, be grateful for the opportunities to continue to grow through your difficulties, and be grateful that you’re not off in a foreign land getting shot by militant looters.

It is possible, if not necessary, to be aware of the relative weight of your problems while still giving them their due attention. It can help to take some of the load off of your shoulders to know that your problems are indeed not life threatening while you actively pursue their meaning and purpose for you.

It might be great if we could live in a world where everybody appreciated how good their life is and lived and breathed gratitude in everything they do. Might be. But I doubt it. Human beings thrive on conflict and don’t do very well with a boring utopia. A world lacking in adversity is also lacking in growth, and staying in the same place gets old pretty fast.

Rather than the highly unlikely dream of world peace, at least in the foreseeable future, perhaps instead we could dream of a world where people are a little less attached to whatever troubles them. A little more in tune with the gift that is being alive in the first place. After all, even the happiest people in the world are not free of strife. For it is the person that is free from the shackles of worry and consternation that has the most power to find peace. And those that find peace amidst all the chaos have the most power to change the world for the better.

Seek not peace through a quiet world around you, but in a stillness within your own storming sea. And try to find some grace in even your smallest complaints – they are, after all, a great privilege.

Let me know about your own experiences with first world problems. Did you have a moment where you realized that your biggest worries aren’t as big as you thought? How did it change your perspective?

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