Guilty about First World Guilt

This is in response to a friend’s (and mentor, and teacher) post on First World Guilt. Over the past few years she has given away her possessions, sold her house, and traveled the country in her car. She’s about to serve in the Peace Corps. You might find my response a little strange because I sought to overcome my guilt for my lack of First World Guilt.

When I was younger I used to be active on a number of message boards frequented by teenage girls across the United States. Generally these were daughters from middle class families – with time, computers, an internet connection in the late nineties/early 2000s. Some guardian most likely had to purchase the computer too, so that means they had some sort of responsible supervision. In other words, they lived in the lap of first world luxury. I remember a particular post that blew up on the forums. A girl had posted a pathetic plea for help, she was tired and sad and lonely. But she had everything, she said – a beautiful home, loving parents, plenty of food, wonderful friends. Yet she was depressed. She felt guilty for feeling depressed in spite of all of the things she had. I found myself disgusted with her. I hated her. How dare she be sad. How dare she! I distinctly remember my indignation rising in the back of my throat as I considered her spoiled, sick, little existence. And while part of me still wants to roll my eyes a little when I think back on her forum post, I’ve altered the way I consider other people’s experience in this world.

What I’ve come to realize – what has developed as my understanding of the world – is that measuring life satisfaction across cultures and time and miles cannot be done through measurement of money and possessions. The woman down the hall from me that doesn’t have to work and whose parents paid for her fancy college degree could want to die right now. She could have driven out to the forest, to a national park. She might be sitting in her car with a handgun on the seat next to her. Maybe she’s dying of cancer and her life is one painful event after another punctuated by brief segments of relief through use of pain pills. Or maybe it’s that her boyfriend of just a few months has unceremoniously dumped her. Whatever the reason, her pain is real. No matter what caused it or what will solve it. For now or forever. If I can accept that without judgment and without comparing her life to my life or to the life of a hungry child across the world, I think that is the best way to consider it. That’s how I want to consider that woman’s life – what it means to her. Her collection of experiences that have brought her to this very real place of sadness.

So that’s why I don’t have First World Guilt. Because my world might be First, but that doesn’t mean anything except that I’ve more opportunities available to me within a framework that is inherently First World. I can still say No to them, I can still give up and go lay in bed and never go to work again. I can do that and I can find out what happens when I make that choice.

I can learn about other cultures and languages and feelings and people and hope to understand on some level…understand their experiences and choices and day-to-day existence. The lady down the hall. The kid in another country who speaks another language and wouldn’t recognize any of my most familiar customs or possessions.

I can reach out to other people and hope that they will consider my experiences for what they mean to me, and give me enough credit to accept that my feelings are real to me.

Tap Tap Tap

Fiction.
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I’m laying in my bathtub with the water too hot, and my belly is distended from the baby inside it. I’m holding a wine bottle. It’s green glass. The glass is smooth and cool against my fingers. My cat, a little black thing, walks along the edge of the cast-iron tub scaring me. I’m afraid of her sharp claws. She’ll fall in and they’ll cut me, her nails will rake into my skin and it will hurt. She jumps down to the bathroom floor and I tap tap tap the green glass bottle against the edge of the tub. I listen to the sounds of the glass echoing off the tile walls of the bathroom. Tap tap tap. I can hear the sounds of my downstairs neighbor below as she nails something into the wall. Her bathroom is pink, bright pink, a Barbie house, like a jewel box. I feel the weight of the glass bottle in my hand. It’s nearly empty now. I feel its weight shifting back-and-forth between my palms and it’s so perfect, so even. What’s to stop me from smashing it hard once? One hard tap against the side of the white tub, the white walls. What’s to stop me? The broken shards of glass fly across the tub and land in the water and fall slowly slowly to the bottom and rest there next to my skin. There are jagged edges to the bottle now, the bottle I hold my hand. I run the ragged edges so lightly against my skin, the skin of my leg. Up my calf. Up towards my thigh underneath my knee, feel the weight against my skin, sharp, not pressing too hard. Then in one movement just as quickly as I smashed the bottle against the side of the tub I push the bottle into my leg. I push hard. I push the sharp edges of the bottle into my leg. I release my green bottle and I let it rest against my knees jutting out of the water up out of the tub at a sharp angle and I read the label aloud to the room and my voice echoes:
Warning: according to the Surgeon General women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy.

Pop Songs on Heartbreak

It’s funny how the way songs make you feel can change based on where your heart is. When you’re in the midst of heartbreak, a sad song is almost unbearable. It’s so real, it was written for you. It was written about you. Except it wasn’t. It’s infuriating. No one has felt this before. How do they know this pain? How can they possibly imagine that they know what my heartbreak feels like? No one has felt this before. It’s impossibly painful. It’s brand new like fresh blood turning bright red when it hits air. You might laugh, exhausted from loneliness.

When your heart is recovering, a sad song is a comfort. It shows that you aren’t alone. Someone else has been where you are, where you were. You start to believe it. Someone is there right now. Someone is behind you and in front of you and there is a different state of being somewhere in the future. You aren’t alone. The song makes the pain less sharp. You might laugh, considering the relative insignificance of your experience.

When your heart has moved on, a sad song feels far away and nostalgic. It’s still a comfort, like for the healing heart, but a different sort of comfort. It’s a reminder of growth and an appreciation for the dips in life that seem to make the highs reach such great heights. You might laugh, surprised as you remember the rich feeling of all the pain of heartbreak.

There is something whole in it, despite everything.

Loss

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Tuesday at work I ran my hand by my ear and realized that only the back of my earring was in one of my ears. They are these tiny, little gold stars that I originally had when I got my ears pierced a few months ago. So the front star part was missing. It’s practically microscopic. I looked around my desk a little and ran my hand along the floor under my chair to feel for it, but unsurprisingly I didn’t find it.
So at lunch I went to Target and got a six pack of earrings for a few bucks and changed out my earrings. Given how small the star is I resigned myself to the fact that it was lost for good. I was really bummed because I love the earrings and they feel sentimental because piercing my ears was pretty symbolic for me this year. I’ve grown a lot and gone through a lot of really good changes, and I am in a much better place. It symbolizes accepting risk and the changes that come along with it.

So, bummer, but not the end of the world.

I had stopped thinking about it and then last night I came home from a run and I was seconds from turning on the shower when I saw it a few inches from the drain. I couldn’t believe it! How the heck did it fall out in the shower and then not wash down the drain?! Wow. Thought that was sorta cool! I am glad to have it back!!

And it feels like a sign that I am going down the right path in my life. The idea I keep going back to is that risk is scary, but eventually it can end in reward and something greater and better than an unchallenged life…which is the life I feel I was previously living. A life where I did not listen to my intuition or surround myself with only people that I trust.

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I wrote this earlier this month, and unsurprisingly I lost the earring again. I didn’t know where to go from here…is the sign gone? I’m not going down the right path? Is it some sort of insecurity that is leading me to look for signs in the first place? That outlook is striking me as sort of pathetic. I don’t anticipate finding the star again. I’m disappointed in myself that all my positive emotions around that incident are so fleeting.

However, I don’t feel the same sense of loss this time in losing the star. I’m not worried over it as I was the first time around. The star still means the same to me, but the feeling of loss is dulled. I felt that loss once before, and the second time it was easier to bear.

The Question

I entered this story into a contest earlier this year. And it won, although I’m not really sure it deserved to.
All people appearing in the essay are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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A few years ago I was invited to a birthday dinner party at a huge farmhouse in Tennessee. The farm was at the end of one of those mountain roads that winds up and up and up and when you turn a corner you have to hold your breath because you feel like you might hit another car or just go straight off the edge. A clean drop. The house itself was the kind that you would see in a magazine. Probably on the cover. Ridiculously huge, the kind you could get lost in. I walked in the door and met my boyfriend’s aunt and uncle for the first time. Less than an hour after I was introduced, his uncle called me by the wrong name. I knew right away that it wasn’t a mistake. I remember the cold feeling of distrust washing over me as I realized he really knew my name.
The dinner was for a friend of my boyfriend’s family. Everyone was at least twice our age. We ate seven layer bean dip and carrots from a huge platter. We all ate standing around the island in the kitchen. There was a lot of drinking and talking. Wine bottles everywhere. Someone was always in the process of opening another. I talked to an old man about our mutual love of coupons. I talked to a woman about her bright red boots. I didn’t really know anyone, but I was having a good time. I forgot the strange interaction with my boyfriend’s uncle. Later on, I noticed my boyfriend and his aunt in animated conversation across the marble expanse of the island. Suddenly I heard my boyfriend’s aunt ask loudly, “Yeah, do you love her?!” And then she laughed. She wouldn’t stop laughing. My boyfriend looked away from his aunt, he looked down and said “I do NOT love her.” Then he took another drink. I remember feeling petrified, and understanding that they were talking about me. I remember smiling, and I remember pretending like I didn’t care.
Shortly after we left. We were both drunk. I drove. Down, down, down the winding mountain road.

Love is a funny thing and if I ever pretend to understand it I will remember this and I will know that I am lying.

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