Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Monday, May 5, 2014

We're in this together

Monica's Dad, Flickr

Have you ever noticed? Sometimes the comments on a blog post are more interesting than the post itself.

This was the case last week: a couple hours after I published my list of « Good and Bad things that happen in life », fellow blogger Roy commented that the problems contained in that list were First World problems.

And he was right.

I have never NOT had enough food to feed my family (or enough milk to nurse, for that matter).

I HAVE - briefly - worried that my child would die, but that was more than 10 years ago, and thanks to an unlimited access to high quality medical care, she made it and went on to thrive.

I am, on a daily basis, aware of my luck (even though I'm also aware that some other people are luckier than me - such is life!)

I believe this awareness comes from hearing about - better yet, witnessing directly - how hard life can be for the majority of human beings.

As a child I lived in the Third World. I was not born there. My parents chose to go there to give a hand, through an international development agency. As most people who travel to help, we were soon humbled by the extent of the situation, and by the limits of our potential intervention. You cannot just go somewhere, impose a solution on people, and solve a problem for them - especially when part of the reason they're struggling originates from actions of your own culture (namely, colonialism).

Later in my childhood and teens, I read many books - and watched many movies and documentaries - about other struggling human groups; for instance, I became very familiar with the slums of Calcutta without ever visiting them.

(Two years ago, I did apply to be part of a Canadian delegation that would go to India to advocate for girl's and women's rights - a long interview process that involved writing numerous pages about my views and the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. My interview went wonderfully but they chose someone with more experience. Next time, maybe!)

All those images (from my life in Africa to my readings and the documentaries I have watched) have had such an impact on me that I don't go one day without thinking about it. Not one day.

On the one hand this helps me feel grateful - other people's problems are so much bigger. I did nothing to earn most of what I have in terms of quality of life - I was just born in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand it leaves me with a guilty feeling: as much as I try to help - mostly at the local level in the past few years, through regular volunteering and donating to those in need, and through simplifying my own life for the sake of the environment - I know I am only making a tiny, tiny difference in the world.

This is all disturbing. But never as disturbing as being caught in the kind of difficult situation so many of my human fellows have to face.

This weekend I watched a documentary about work conditions in clothing manufactures (in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia); I would be very surprised if any one of us was willing to exchange their life with that of the workers who make the very clothes we wear every day (and which we complain are too expensive). Yet the solution to that globalization problem is far from simple.

The economics are not the only issue that poses a threat to a great number (the greatest proportion, actually) of humans - there are also wars and threats to human rights. About that, may I recommend you get yourself acquainted with the way Sudanese women are treated; and that's just one sad example.

In the meantime, we First World people have our own problems, which seem ridiculously shallow in comparison, but which still have consequences on our lives - think of all those struggling with severe depression to the point where they don't want to live anymore. Their suffering is genuine.

Well, this wasn't a joyous post, but I believe it to be a necessary one.

Any thoughts?


  1. And most people don't even get as close to these 'third' world problems as you have! We only hear about them on TV or, now, the internet. It makes me very uncomfortable when people try to guilt me into feeling bad about my own issues. I am very grateful to have grown up in the time and part of the world I did but that doesn't mean that we are less vulnerable to trauma and pain. Globalisation is a blessing and a curse all at once: it can bring more opportunities to those who genuinely want to better their lives while at the same time creating and encouraging unsafe conditions for people, especially women and children, because of greed and our "expect more pay less" mentality. I sometimes get very overwhelmed by it all and that's when I remind myself that I can affect change for myself, within myself. I can practice awareness and consideration towards those around me and I make buying choices based on what I believe in. Great post!

    1. You are certainly right about us not being invincible! Trauma and pain are everywhere, 1st, 2nd and 3rd world. We have to be allowed to acknowledge and discuss our own problems, even if they aren't a matter of life and death (although sometimes, they are).

      Thank you for coming by Kerstin!

  2. It is funny to see the way we can magnify our minor difficutlies so much when real suffering goes on all over the world, and yet we're fallible humans, and we're wired to take care of our selves and families first before worrying about others. Transcending our natural selfishness is hard! And pain is pain, even if it's in some ways self-inflicted and psychological.

    I think there's a helpful aspect to the whole "first world problem" reframe, but it can also be surprisingly unhelpful to people who are struggling, whether they "should" be or not. True compassion for all living things sounds great in theory but I think it's tough in practice. All we can do is the best we can.

    1. That is very well said, Crabby. I don't see anything I could add. :-) Thank you!

  3. Julie

    I love the way your head works. While around a third of the world goes hungry, another third eat too much, and pays the price. Balance is the name of game. Help yourself and your own first. Then help others. So often we see, less is far more. Greed in all it’s forms will be the end of us, unless we change our ways. If the human race learns to share, and work together it has a chance. If we carry on the way things are now, it is doomed. And deserves to go the way of the dinosaur.


    1. I still want to hope we can do better than this as a supposedly intelligent and social species...

      The resources are not too scarce, it is us who desire too much.

  4. Ha Ha sorry Julie another red pepper will appear as Eddie beat me to it LOL !

    But seriously, It is of course only natural we look after ourselves, our family. A mother will fight for the last piece of food for her child, a husband will fight to do the best to provide and protect his family. Maybe that is perhaps simplistic BUT we must all learn to live together, to help each other. It is still an unbelievable uphill struggle as people fight and steal from their own. Mankind and womankind is learning, well some are, but progress needs to be faster if we are going to make it.

    The world is like a big cake, ideally there should be enough to go around .....unfortunately throughout time there are always those who are more greedy.

    Will we learn? I really hope so.......we can all do our bit to help and I try each day to do this.

    I enjoyed reading your post,

    All the best Jan

    1. Hi Jan, I
      I do not mind seeing more than one red pepper here! :-)
      I have never had to fight for a piece of food and therefore, there is a lot I don't understand. However, I do understand the difference between fighting for a good quality of life and being greedy.
      Thanks for your comment!

  5. I agree - I always feel like a total heel when I get whiney about my problems - I know that in the big scheme of things they are nothing.
    I also know that I don't do nearly enough to try and make a difference.
    Great post!!

    1. Our problems are real nonetheless, and deserve to be acknowledged. As long as we keep things in perspective, as you say. :-)

  6. I've been so lucky to have such a good life. In times when I feel m life sucks (those are rare), I am grateful for the exposure I have had to those with greater problems than the cable going out.

    My mother worked hard to always see that many more were much less fortunate than me. I have a nephew, 12, with no arms. If the Broncos lose the Super Bowl, or even if a break bone in my foot, those are small problems.

    I have been to Port Au Prince while I was in the Coast Guard, returning refuges who tried to escape in rafts made from trash cans and inner tubes. Once I was on land there, it was obvious whey they wanted to take such a huge risk to escape.

    I have seen parents lose children, and children go horribly bad with drugs, while my daughter is a PhD candidate in archeology. I don't own a car, an live in very meager accommodations, but I am truly the luckiest person alive.

    I think as a species, are actually getting better -- but one needs to step back and take a very big picture view of society to see this.

    1. Thank you for this:

      « I think as a species, are actually getting better -- but one needs to step back and take a very big picture view of society to see this. »

      I will ponder it. :-)

    2. I've been to Port Au Prince on a surgical mission. it was a life changing experience. Watching something on TV cannot compare to being surrounded by the misery that many people live in.

  7. Posts like this put so much into perspective. Whenever I complain about something, all I need to do is remember how others truly suffer. Thanks for this!

  8. I agree, Roy has a rare talent to see and express interesting profound views that most of us cannot.