Emotional Honesty and “First-World Problems”

It started in social justice circles. I’m not entirely sure how far it’s actually spread, because everyone I know is in some form of social justice or another, but it’s out there.

I’ve seen it referred to in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way on various social media outlets. I’ve said it myself, and more, I’ve self-censored because of it. You’ve probably said it yourself, with varying degrees of seriousness. The phrase I’m talking about is, of course, “first-world problems.”

“First-world problems” is, in my mind, another insidious manifestation of the cult of okay, while it ostensibly acknowledges the blessings of living in the first world.

Here’s an example: my first-world problem is that I got a job on Monday. On the one hand, yay, a job! I’m doing better than a lot of people in this economy; in fact, I found a job faster here than I did when I was looking in Phoenix. I hereby acknowledge that it’s a blessing, of sorts. I say “of sorts,” because there are a lot of problems with it, including the fact that I know I’m going to hate it, I’m incredibly overqualified, and the only way it could be less suited to the way I like to work is if it were phone sales. It’s phone customer service, a massive call center for a major corporation, and the list of things you’re not allowed to do on the phone explicitly includes knitting. It’s full-time, when what I wanted was a part-time job so I could work on other projects. I will hate this job, but at least I have one?

That’s a first-world problem: one in which I feel like I don’t have the right to complain about, because a lot of people are worse off than I am. I don’t want people to think I’m whining: poor me, I have to take an office job, I have to work 40 whole hours a week, I’m not allowed to indulge in my hobby at work. What a rotten life I have, am I right?

But having a “first-world problem” doesn’t mean you have to forfeit your ability to be unhappy about something. I can acknowledge my many blessings, including my lovely apartment, my craft room, my car, my general good health, and my incredibly supportive partner. I have enough to eat. I can also acknowledge that another person wouldn’t be nearly as happy with my (500 square foot studio) apartment, my craft room (the size of a closet), my (little hatchback) car, my (lack of) health (insurance), and (the fact I can’t marry) my incredibly supportive partner (because the law still treats us like second-class citizens). It’s about perspective, and living to your potential, and finding the things that make you happy, and acknowledging the things that do not.

So I will acknowledge: a corporate environment doesn’t make me happy. I don’t work well in an oppressive environment or under a lot of rules (insert joke about artistic temperament). I don’t even like being on the phone. (This is why I never call any of you.) I expect that there will be many parts about this job that make me miserable. But I will also acknowledge my blessings, and take the good parts with the bad,and make sure I acknowledge them. I like to help people. I like to solve problems. I like belonging to something bigger than myself, even if I’m not happy about what it is.

I will also work hard to remember that this opportunity would not have been given to me if there wasn’t something that I needed to get out of it, even if it’s just the opportunity to help with the bills until something better comes along. It’s a chance to network, to meet lots of potential clients, and to make friends.

And now, I’m feeling a lot better about my job situation. The first thing I had to do was stop feeling guilty about being unhappy about it, and then I could look at it and find the hidden blessings. “At least I have a job,” is rooted in guilt, and it’s not going to inspire me to find joy in the situation any more than your mom telling you that you ought to really appreciate your broccoli because there are kids starving in Africa that would be happy to have it. (If I could send my job to someone who needed it, I totally would. But if anybody wants to move to Portland and has at least six months of customer service experience, I can get you a job.) The minute I could admit to myself, and to you, that the fact of the job made me unhappy, I could find the silver lining.

Thanks, you guys. You just made my burden a little lighter.

~ by Amber on September 28, 2011.

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