Are First World Problems Real World Problems?


For the past year, our church, Sterling Mennonite Fellowship, has been working with St. Vital Evangelical Mennonite Church to sponsor a refugee family through Mennonite Central Committee. Two months ago, the family arrived from Africa in the middle of our Winnipeg winter. This was the first time I’ve ever been involved in a process of this kind, and I’m learning so much because of it.

I believe we all benefit from cross-cultural experiences. Going to another country and seeing how other people live can really open our eyes to our own situations and the problems we face. In the same way, when people come here from around the world, we learn from their experience and the ways in which they need to adjust to fit into our culture. 

The family we sponsored was originally from the Congo but has lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda for quite some time. We saw some pictures of where they were coming from, and I can’t even imagine what life was like there. If one thing was certain, as refugees displaced in another country, they were coming to us with nothing.

I, on the other hand, live in a first world context. Canada definitely makes the top 30 list of richest countries in the world. I grew up here and it’s all I know. It’s not that there are no poor people in Canada or that I can call myself filthy rich, but I can never genuinely say that I have not had enough to eat or drink, or been without shelter or even gas for my car.

That’s not to say that we don’t have problems in Canada, but sometimes they are the kinds of problems you don’t find in third world countries. Being stuck in traffic on the highway, not having a strong enough wifi signal to stream the game on your phone, or your favourite team being eliminated from the playoffs. These are the kinds of problems we have only because we live in such good conditions. 

I’m not sure how it all started, but there was/is a trend of saying “first world problems” when people complain about things that we really shouldn’t complain about. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it really makes us pause and realize how blessed we actually are. When we complain and loose our cool because McDonald’s gets our order wrong, we’re right to stop and remember that 795 million people will go hungry today. In light of such knowledge, we might pause before yelling at our server and think twice before wasting our food.

But the “first world problems” saying suggests that the problems we face are not true or proper problems at all. In fact, unless we live in developing countries and third world conditions, we should always be happy because we have everything we need or want. Our problems can’t be valid in comparison to others, can they? Won’t there always be someone worse off?

As I got to know our sponsored family a bit more, I was able to learn about their home and what life in the refugee camp was like. One evening, I was standing in their kitchen with the oldest son (I’ll call him John) looking at all the different appliances, and realized that this is the first time they have ever used these things. And I was curious how they cooked in the camp.

John started to explain that if they wanted to cook food, they needed to make a fire and find some stones. Then they could place the stones on top of the wood until it was hot enough to cook on. That’s it. No oven, no fridge, no microwave, no coffee machine. None of the things that we all have and often take for granted.

I then thought to explain to John what it means to take something for granted. After about ten minutes I think I got the point across that our problems seem small when compared to how they grew up and what they had to do to survive. Now that they are in Canada, things would be much better for them, right?

Well, I’m slowly learning that this isn’t necessarily the case. People from other countries might see us as being wealthy and living in abundance, but they are also good at pointing out our problems and feel sorry for us because of them. So far, through the eyes of our refugee family, I’ve noticed how much we, in Canada, struggle with relationships, loneliness, consumerism and greed.

Complaining about a wrong order at McDonald’s is a symptom of our greed and entitlement. Getting angry at the wifi not working is a result of our dependance on technology for connection and entertainment. When we dig a bit deeper, our “first world problems” no longer seem so laughable.

We are so busy and private in life because we feel the pressure to make something of ourselves and achieve greatness. We rarely have time for each other anymore. We are so connected through technology and social media but are lacking real human connection and relationships. We have bought in so much to a consumerist culture wherein our worth is tied up in what we have that we constantly want the latest and the greatest. We have so much, but we can't get enough. We spend so much but are never satisfied.

We would most likely never choose to switch places with someone in third world conditions. But I’m not so convinced that they would want our lives as well. At least that’s what I’m learning from our refugee family. Don’t get me wrong. They are so grateful to be here, to have shelter and food, health care, school, and all that. But they know what it’s like to get by with very little. 

Back in the refugee camp, because it was all they had, they knew that the most important things were relationships - with God and others. And now that they have more material things, that doesn’t change. They don’t retreat behind closed doors and busy schedules. They are people driven, always longing to get together and have visitors in their home. And they are generous with their time and belongings, giving much out of their poverty.

Third world problems are real problems. And we need to do our part, as followers of Jesus, to help those people who don’t have enough. That’s clear. But first world problems are real world problems too, and sometimes we don’t notice them until someone from the outside points them out. And when they do, we should take notice, because they might very well be able to teach us. And that’s the beauty of cross-cultural experiences. No matter how much you may be able to give, there is always something for you to receive.