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May 28, 2015

Fridges & First World Problems: Remembering the Proper Scale of Things.

looking in fridge

My favorite hashtag is #FWP: First World Problem(s)—it’s one that my friends and I adopted a few years back.

At the time I was working at an organization dedicated to teaching contemplative practices and applying them to social issues (with the ultimate aim of creating change). It was a small staff, but within that, a cohort of like-minded and close-in-age came together.

These women have become some of my dearest friends and greatest teachers—and as we each grappled with being 20-somethings working in a non-profit, we also grappled with questions about how to really commit to the kinds of change we each wanted to see in the world. Many inspired and energetic hours talking about the micro and macro ways that life on this planet is simultaneous suffering and exquisite beauty, while dancing between realism, cynicism, and optimism.

My roommate was one of those colleagues. She was a few years younger and she was the most optimistic and idealistic among us. She came to the organization most dedicated to the environmental initiative. She’s a wonderful person—brilliant, sweet, goofy funny and deeply present. She was a wonderful roommate, too—clean, organized, and always a good hiking partner/motivator.

As vegans with shared values and tastes, we often went grocery shopping together. Food was tremendously important in our house—as both, the centerpiece for connection between us, as well as many friends, and for making mindful decisions about how we related to all things. Countless hours in the kitchen cooking, exploring the ways factory farming adds to fear and suffering (for animals, humans, and the planet), discussing the farm internship she had in Italy where she was privy to and part of the full life cycle of pigs and so many hours committed to consciousness.

Growing up poor and very aware of wealth, there have been many moments where it has been hard for me to stay in touch with my own privilege. Experiencing loss, trauma, challenge, and heartbreak can make that awareness more elusive. Having little made me grateful, resourceful and imbued me with some measure of perspective, but did not make me aware of how privileged I was—that was a deliberate decision.

I was squarely on my path of Buddhism; I had a nightly gratitude practice and was very close to the gifts of my life in that moment. Working and discoursing with that cohort brought privilege more keenly into my mind. We would joke that no dinner, hike, walk or email thread was complete until someone mentioned privilege, social justice, or cultural appropriation. We were mindful, deeply mindful.

But the micro-aggressions of daily life would still come up. The car in front of me not using a blinker, my boss asking me easily googled questions, cell service invariably cutting out on part of the commute and so on.

That was until my wonderfully positive and optimistic roommate grabbed my attention. We’d done one of our big food shops. We’d returned home and were trying to make enough space in the refrigerator to accommodate the very large quantity of organic necessities and indulgences that we’d only just delighted in purchasing. It felt frustrating that her jar of flax seeds was in the way, that those damned shelves weren’t big enough, that it was a bit of a puzzle. It became a moment of frustration until #FWP came into the equation.

What a beautiful reminder. Yes, it feels involved and yes, at the present, we are hungry and tired from working all day, but gosh, what a first world problem that not all the food was easily fitting; what a first world problem, that there was so much food that neither of us toiled to grow, that it wasn’t easily fitting; what a first world problem, to have a refrigerator that wasn’t twice the size to make fitting easy. What a first world problem to have driven to get the groceries, in my car, which is bigger than I need and makes fitting so many things so easy; what a first world problem that we were both under 30, had full time jobs, with salaried incomes, which allowed us to purchase enough food that we would have to invest the extra 2 minutes to make room to fit it all. What a first world problem to be so acutely aware and in control of our food choices; what a first world problem that we could do all of this freely, safely and with the love and support of one another.

The pendulum did not (and needed not) swing in the other direction of feeling guilty or shameful for this but it certainly did swing away from a moment of utter disconnect.

First world problems can truly have moments of anger, fear, pain, and confusion—like deciding whether to break up, make up, move out, chase a dream. With the privilege of #FWP, there can be great overwhelm in examining how to make a meaningful life in a society where, for most, our primary employment isn’t basic survival (ie. farming). There are gifts to privilege for sure, but there are also choices and choices tap some of our deepest wounds about loss/impermanence and control/groundlessness.

So again, I do not mean to swing the pendulum toward undue shame, since the potential existential crises that can arise in a culture of specialization, individualism and a world of possibilities are, in fact, difficult to navigate. But I also know that if I berate myself for my privilege no benefit can come of it. If I can remember gratitude, I can access open spaciousness to be of service to others.

Those of us born in the United States, reading blogs or books, sleeping indoors and eating several times a day are incredibly fortunate. If we can remember that, and stay with wholehearted gratitude for it, what would we do? How would we be with others? How could we apply that perspective to stay close to our natural position of compassion?

Laughing and labelling “first world problems” in a moment of tension could be an invitation to remember the relationship between all sentient beings, to appreciate life and to lighten up.

If we forget the gift of privilege, we can become angry, clinging, fearful, disconnected, and ignorant. If we overly identify with this gift, we can become self involved, deluded, disconnected, and ignorant.

If we can balance our privilege, gratitude, and love, we may find peace in ourselves and others.

By repeating this little mantra I have found that without perpetuating aggression toward self, I can reconnect with a larger perspective and even savor a moment of levity while remembering the proper scale of things.

Our micro choices become macro movements, so what’s your #mantra?

 

Author: Jacqueline Lieske

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: Flickr

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