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.