STORRS, Conn. — It’s easy to put everybody else’s pain into perspective. Broken heart? At least it’s not a broken leg. Broken leg? At least it’s not a broken heart. Evicted? At least you still have your car. Car repossessed? Hey, you’ll be so busy trying to figure out public transportation you won’t have time to worry about your broken heart.

But it doesn’t work that way when it’s your own affliction, does it? As my assistant Krissy says, “Who wants to hear, ‘Sure, but – ‘ when you’re feeling bad?”

That’s why I break out in hives when I hear, “Oh, it’s only first-world problems.” (And don’t tell me that my allergic reaction is a first-world problem, either. Irritation is global, intergenerational and probably intergalactic.)

A 32-year-old pal explained that he invokes “first-world problems” when he wants to ground the conversation by placing things within a larger context. “If we’re whining about something trivial, it’ll remind us that we’re lucky to have such relatively insignificant issues.” His family is not trying to find clean water, for example, but trying to get their hot water heater working again.

I respect his intentions, yet I distrust the phrase. It’s too often and too thoughtlessly used as a form of presumptive absolution, a way of being simultaneously sanctimonious and patronizing. If it’s too trifling to mention, then don’t bring it up; if it’s important, then accept responsibility for what you feel and what you say.

As do so many visceral reactions, mine goes back to childhood. My family had a version of what I regard as essentially the same sentiment: “THAT should be the worst thing that happens to you!” is what I heard every 15 minutes as a kid.

That was my family’s collective and unvarying response whenever anybody was hurt, unhappy or weak enough to admit discomfort. You could say you had rickets, and the aunts would chorus, “THAT should be the WORST thing that happens to you!” as if they knew precisely what more grievous disasters lurked just around the corner if you didn’t appreciate your own good fortune.

If you dared to speak up for yourself, you were shut down by the declaration that you were an ingrate and a brute. If you didn’t watch out, fate would smack your head like an old woman with a wooden spoon.

You didn’t have a right to feel anything – not after what they endured. And they made sure you knew it. Let’s just say it didn’t lead to a lot of honest examination of deep feelings.

Maybe that’s why advice columnist Amy D. Dickinson doesn’t like the phrase “only first-world problems” either, defining it as “dismissive.” As Amy told me, “People of all stripes ‘get’ to have problems. As someone who deals with people and their problems for a living, I don’t like to characterize some as somehow unworthy of attention.”

Recently a student came into my office saying, “I chipped my tooth. I guess it’s a first-world problem,” to which I replied, “I don’t think that’s right. I bet there are swear words for chipping a tooth in every hellhole around the globe.”

She was trying to be brave, for which I give her some credit and all, but cracking an incisor is cracking an incisor. Yes, some countries can offer dentistry while others offer a pair of pliers – but that’s a reaction to the situation and not the individual experience. This teenager needed a cold compress and a warm hug.

As my friend Kate put it, “Offering comfort and empathy is not a finite action that should be hoarded and used sparingly for only the most dire circumstances. A sincere ‘there, there’ or an embrace is welcome whether you chipped your tooth or a dingo just ate your baby.”

“I tend to complain to my daughters, maybe just a little,” says another friend, Loretta. “One rebuked me with, ‘Oh, boo-hoo – first-world problems!’ I told her I agreed with her – and then offered to make amends by cutting off her first-world credit card.”

Aren’t we permitted to sympathize and empathize without checking ourselves to make sure we’re being generous only in geopolitically appropriate doses?

Here’s a hug – just don’t mention first-world problems.


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