Not deferential enough: First world problems

Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: First world problems

Children receive Plumpy Nut nutritional aid in Ethiopian famine camp.

by Gina Hamilton

My husband was listening to Joe Jackson's "A Slow Song" on Spotify last night, and I said that Jackson was a guy whose songs all reflect first world problems.

My husband thought about that for a minute, and then laughed.  He couldn't argue with it.

There are problems, and there are problems, but if you live in the first world, your problems tend to be a bit ridiculous when you really get down to brass tacks, at least compared to the stuff people face in the third world.

Now, I am not talking about real, life and death stuff here, though that kind of thing happens everywhere.  I'm talking about problems that people get bent about that aren't really all that important at all, and might even be a little comical if we just let ourselves remember that there are people in Africa who are literally starving to death or being stoned for being gay or being forced into marriage against their will or being sold into slavery by their parents. 

Right?

In short, first world problems should hover around the very top of Maslow's hierarchy - self-actualization and self-esteem, while the third world problems are at the very base of the pyramid - food, shelter, safety, and so on.  But if we vocalized problems like "I just need more time to work on my art - I don't feel that other people are taking me seriously as a sculptor", we'd be afraid that people would think us pretentious at best, and hopelessly out of touch at worst.

So in the Jackson song, he's complaining with a cry in his voice that the DJ at the club won't play a slow song. "Why's it always what HE plays?" There might have been a bit of self-deprecation in that song, but in other Jackson songs, that are also first world problems, there is no hint of self-deprecation at all - he's deadly serious.  "Real Men" is an example.  "Time to get scared, time to change plan, Don't know how to treat a lady, Don't know how to be a man."  Jackson is worried about a war between the sexes because men have basically forgotten how to behave.

Well, there's a relatively simple cure for that, Joe. 

But we all have first world problems.  My solution to first world problems was always that if something wasn't going to matter in five years, it shouldn't be a problem now. Here are some of my first world problems at the moment:

Actually, having a son and heir at all is a first world problem.  Goodness knows, it was expensive enough to raise him and educate him and pay for violin lessons and then he was kind of dairy intolerant and we had to get him soy milk and special cheese.  And the automobile insurance premiums when he was younger! (Can you see ANY of that being said by a woman in a refugee camp about her son?)

In the third world,  people don't have food allergies.  It's an odd thing.  But no one is allergic to peanuts, or milk products, or gluten.  There is a substance called "Plumpy Nut" that is given to small children in refugee camps and in health camps in famine regions.  It's made mostly of peanut butter and dried milk, with some vegetable fat and sugar.  It's supposed to taste pretty good, too, according to people I know who have used it with kids in the Peace Corps. A two-month supply costs about $60 per child.

Here, we have somehow decided that just being in the mere vicinity of someone who is eating a peanut butter sandwich is enough to cause life-threatening peanut allergies, so schools are reconsidering whether or not to allow peanut butter in lunches brought from home because one of the kids might go into anaphlyactic shock.  Airlines, most of them, aren't giving peanuts out with their plastic cup of coke because someone on the plane might be allergic.  Companies have to point out that their facilities might have processed something with nuts in it. 

Ironically enough, it seems that the most likely factor in the increase in diagnosed peanut allergies among American children is that parents have followed the recommendation of pediatricians in not allowing their kids to be exposed to peanuts at an early age because they might present a choking hazard.   But there's also a large school of thought, much backed up with evidence, that the vast majority of "peanut allergies" aren't really allergies at all, but very minor sensitivities that would clear up (like strawberry sensitivity) if parents just kept introducing the food, and the fact that they won't do it is due to a kind of mass hysteria around the issue of food allergies.

The recent gluten-free craze is another such issue.

One in 100 people in the U.S. and developed world (again, not a problem in the third world, go figure) have true celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body cannot process wheat products, and the body responds with a major white blood cell war on the small intestine, causing belly pain, bowel problems, and other issues. 

But a lot of people have made the decision on their own (or with the support of para-medical providers, such as homeopaths and such) that they are in fact suffering from celiac disease or a non-specific wheat allergy, for which there is no accurate test.  In a controlled study, only a third of the people in Italy who were convinced they had a gluten allergy and were living on a gluten-free diet responded poorly to a capsule containing gluten.  The remaining two-thirds had no gluten sensitivity, yet were convinced they did.

Why is it we make up problems for ourselves like this? Is it really because we need something to complain about? Or is it just that we don't realize how good we really have it, and the minor irritants of our day transmogrify into major headaches?

Whatever the issue is, I wish first worlders would knock it off. 

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