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The Citizen

First world problems and the fragile humanity in all of us

By Irene Shih

I’ve been thinking about the term “first world problems,” an obligatory hashtag we must wear to show our awareness of privilege. It’s an immaculate badge of immunity. It grants us street cred. We may not have lived through terrors of other worlds, but we know they exist and Mother, May I Milk That.


I use it all the time, not even sparingly. As in, “My new Macbook is lagging #firstworldproblems” or, “Stayed up till 5am working on my research paper #firstworldproblems” and my very favorite: “So much work I don’t even have time to type out #fwp.” See what I did there? So many layers of wit.


(Excuse me while I take a moment to ‘Like’ that in my head.)


But it’s not the illusion of street cred that worries me. It is worrisome, but I also think it’s more of the same. It’s very human to want others to hear our story and acknowledge that we have a right to share it even if we speak from a perch of privilege. So we throw in the necessary ingredients that will allow us to keep our voice.


I think what concerns me more, actually, is that pain is pain is pain. And joy is joy. And the instinct to communicate whatever we feel – somehow and to someone – deserves consideration. When that pain is, “I lost a loved one” – even if it comes from the most privileged person you can imagine – it is immediately allowable. We immediately make room for the person to feel and express and experience that pain, in front of us. (If they so choose.) It’s not a transferable pain, but it is a translatable one. We understand it even if we do not viscerally feel the same. Announcements like these – “I lost a loved one” – do not require street cred, need not come with a FWP hashtag.


But we draw the line. Somewhere between “I lost a loved one” and “I broke a nail” – we draw the line. Some things, we deem, are not worth expressing. Do not deserve the oxygen it asks of us. Or we draw the line at WHO gets to say what. “I hate my life” is more okay if you’re impoverished than if you feast every day. “I’m feeling sad today” is more acceptable if you live with abuse, or if you have depression, or if you’ve just lost a loved one – than if you are and have none of the above but simply miss a friend. We assign value to pain, and quietly suggest who should (and who needn’t) apply hashtags to their updates.


I had to think about this recently. I’d been feeling some angst about my twenties, struggling with a seemingly inane climb to things I’m not sure I want. Fishing, and finding it’s not fish I’m after. Perplexed, as I always am, by adulthood. How quickly it came knocking and how little we – certainly I – have bothered to process all that comes with it. Somewhere among my altogether too many Facebook posts about this angst, someone replied, “But you’re a Harvard student.” Implying, of course: “How could life be THAT hard?”


Her instinct is not wrong. She reminded me, actually, of my days as a teacher. I remembered especially the eighth graders I taught. I used to wonder how they – in their pubescent microcosm of acne and mercurial social lives and afternoons by Wal-Mart and evening dates on Facebook and SO MUCH EYELINER (so much) – could be so endlessly unhappy. In my first months of teaching, I immediately assumed their angst was shallow and would pass. Certainly if there were greater (by my judgment) issues percolating beneath – such as abuse or blatant bullying or poverty or mental and physical disability – I would be right there to support them. But everything else – eye-rolling and muttered jokes and boys who don’t like you back and parties you aren’t invited to – those were shallow distractions. They were first world, teenage problems. #FWTP.


My initial conversations with these students usually began with, “It could be a lot worse.” I wasn’t always wrong to believe this. Sometimes, it damn well could be a lot worse, Roberta*, because “that nail will grow back and I am not going to discipline the wall that you scratched out of boredom for breaking it.” Other times, I wasn’t so sure. Imaginative Iris had a wonderful mom and a protective older brother and was sweet and beautiful inside and out. She ran circles around me every Monday, excited to share about her weekend. But later in the fall she wrote a letter to me, tucked into my copy of The Little Prince. “Ms. Shih,” it began. “This is a real story about a ghost. That ghost is me. Why do I feel so alone?”


There are just things we don’t know, couldn’t possibly see, from the outside. Profound ideas waiting for a champion, bubbling pain cowering in crevices. That tender, fragile humanity in all of us. It’s almost impossible to tell which comes from what, even if all I look and see is a happy, beautiful, loved young woman. Even if all you see of me is a self-absorbed Harvard elite. I may well be that, but I may well be more, too. And without a conversation – without many conversations – what gives us the right to be sure?


I don’t want to end my musing on that note. Don’t get me wrong – everything I write is ultimately about me. I can’t help it. I’ve been wired and then nurtured to think about myself more than I think about everyone else combined. I don’t like that and I’m learning to strike a better balance. But it’s still true, and I don’t want to pretend it isn’t.


That being said, I wrote this because I’m terrified of dismissing someone else’s pain and experience, of taping their mouths shut with words like, “Wow, that is such a first world problem. Your life is better than you realize.” That may be true, but the fact that they are in pain means that it doesn’t feel true for them. And maybe I need to listen more. To let them speak, and share, and be. Maybe when someone puts their hand out in hopes that I’ll hold it, I should just hold it. It’s not my platform to make a speech. It’s a couch for us to sit on, inhale some coffee, and have a conversation.


*Student names have been replaced to ensure privacy. I have never taught an Iris nor a Roberta.


Irene Shih is a second-year MPP and aspiring professional writer. Her blog,, elaborates on a range of issues from political to personal. Please send feedback to her at