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Learning to Laugh at Our First World Problems

Posted: 10/24/2012 12:26 pm


"I hate when my leather seats aren't heated," says a grinning boy, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands in the air in that traditional gesture of annoyance.

"When I leave my clothes in the washer so long they start to smell," laments a girl who looks about 11, a few moments later.

However the boy isn't sitting in a luxury car, he's perched atop a pile of gravel outside a cinder block building with no windows. There's no washing machine behind the girl, only a narrow, muddy creek where women wash clothes by hand.

These are scenes from a short video called The First World Problems Anthem -- a cheeky, teasing shot at us pampered First World dwellers featuring Haitians reciting a litany of complaints you're far more likely to hear at Second Cup than in a seedy slum. Juxtaposed against images of dire poverty, grumbles like "my house is so big I need two wireless routers" come across as more than a little whiny.

The Anthem has become an epic viral sensation. The video has had more than 1.5 million views since it was released on YouTube October 3 by Water is Life, a small non-profit that distributes water filtration straws in developing communities.

The meme long predates the video. It began November 2008 with the Tumblr blog The Real First World Problems. In 2009, a post on the web site Something Awful introduced the hashtag

#Firstworldproblems which has since lit up Twitter with endless self-mocking tweets like "Way too much chips and not enough cheese dip."

Even Saturday Night Live is in mocking the meme, delivering a hilariously blistering send-up of technophiles unhappy with the new iPhone 5. SNL comics play three critics who sneer at inadequate apps and screens that scratch too easily, until they are confronted by three other comics playing workers from the Chinese factory that makes the iPhone.

"Awww... you're upset with bugs in phone? I sleep in communal bunk bed with hundreds of strangers. Lice are best bug I get!" rants Fred Armison's character with withering sarcasm.

And let's face it, it's funny because there's a huge dollop of truth there. Every day Canadians make Everests out of anthills that are pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things.

"They put pickles on my burger when I asked for no pickles!" Oh the humanity!

A huge mea culpa: we ourselves are also guilty of over-privileged kvetching. We grouse about the wasted time while the drycleaner lectures us on the evils of getting fast food stains on our dress shirts. And how dare this airport lounge be so inconsiderate as to offer no free Wi-Fi?

Perhaps the greatest gifts we get from our work are the constant kicks in the backside. Every visit to Kenya or Haiti is a reminder how lucky we are to have drycleaners and fast food and Wi-Fi. Not to mention a home, food and clean water. Those many not-always-so-gentle lessons in perspective inspired our latest literary endeavour: My Grandma Follows me on Twitter...and Other First World Problems We're Lucky to Have.

It's our own collection of soft and occasionally silly complaints ubiquitous on social media like, "the f@#$ING tab on my disposable coffee cup tore open too far and now I spilled coffee on my shirt while I was driving," and "there's no pizza joint on the beach in this Mexican resort town."

None of us can help the situation we're born into. We shouldn't be made to feel ashamed because we have spacious homes, microwave dinners and GPS boxes that talk to us and help us get where we need to go. The guilt kicks in when we lose perspective on the little problems that arise amidst the privileges.

That's the point of memes like the First World Problems Anthem -- perspective. They're not your mom shaking a reproachful finger and scolding, "Eat your broccoli! There are starving children in Africa, you know!" But rather gentle nudges to say, "Your computer blue-screened again? So what. Take a deep breath, it's no biggie."

We've tried to take our book a step further -- First World Problems 2.0 -- by making each problem a chance to laugh, learn and make life better for yourself and others.

Coffee spilled? Canadians use 1.6 billion disposable coffee cups a year, so why not switch to a reusable travel mug with an easy-to-use lid? No Pizza Hut at your resort? Tourism is the main economic activity in a third of all developing countries, so try a locally-owned eatery and support the community economy.

This is our toast to first world problems -- long may we continue to have them, and may more and more people around the world get to experience them.

Now if you'll excuse us, our stupid laptop battery is about to run out of power.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com

 

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