Dear Maria,

I read through some of your past columns, and can’t stand the whining. People are petty. They should be grateful that their kids are healthy, or that they have a job, or that their biggest problem is a neighbor’s barking dog. With all the troubles in the world, some people just need to get over it. Am I right?

Signed,

Tired of First World Problems

Dear Tired of First World Problems,

Thanks for reading my column. Let’s take your question one step further and ask:  Why it is that you’ve let the petty problems of others bother you so much?

I understand where you’re coming from. Today I was on my way to do some shopping, when I heard an interview with a Syrian refugee on the radio. This man now lives in Germany. His story is heartbreaking. I felt so helpless and sad for him, and his country. Then, my judgement turned inward, as I saw myself driving a heated car on a smoothly paved road on my way to buy gifts with a valid credit card. Who am I to have this freedom and comfort, when others are suffering so? I’d been stressing about my long to-do list, while this man, separated from his home and family, with no home to return to even if the civil war ends there, pleads on national radio for comfortable Americans, like me, to just pay attention. My eyes filled with tears. My own concerns reduced, as you say, to petty.

So, you’re right: Why do we let the petty things bring us down when there are more important things to concern ourselves with? Because they are happening to us. We have only our lives to live. I suppose we are all searching for meaning, and when things don’t go our way, we can’t help but wonder why. Bonus: we live with the illusion that we have control over others, or our circumstances. “If only my boss, husband, dog…would behave better (that is, do what I want them to do), then my life would be easier, and things would make sense.” When problems arise, we dig back and blame others or ourselves for missed opportunities, bone-headed decisions, conspiracies working against us, or bad timing, etc. “If only…” starts way too many sentences.

We can easily assess another’s situation, but it’s much harder in our own lives. That’s why trusted friends, and sometimes advice columnists, offer safe spaces to sift through the issues. The answers may seem obvious to you, and the problems petty, but not to the writer. As you perused my past columns, I hope you discovered this theme: We are each, individually, in charge of our response to circumstances. We cannot control anyone else’s. So, I invite you to consider why it is that you’ve reacted this way to those who’ve written in for advice?

Maybe you’ve had some car moments like mine today, where the world felt like a nasty, chaotic place, and you lost your bearings. Maybe raging against conflict that carries an obvious solution is something you can control, when global strife feels so overwhelming. Maybe you’ve got something going on in your life that is disrupting your idea of a normal, predictable life. Or you’ve lost someone or something precious to you, and you cannot even bear the sun rising in the morning, for fear that the new day will bring with it reminders of what’s missing.

heart-handOur petty fretting and complaining may be in defense of our inner, vulnerable selves. Lashing out protects us, in a way, and holds at bay feelings like fear or grief or loneliness. “If I can fix this problem in front of me,” our inner selves say, “then maybe the world isn’t spinning out of control.” Maybe judging other peoples’ problems, or their right to feel deeply about them, helps as well.

This column has been more “musings” than “advice.” I don’t have the answers, I just offer some perspective. I hope my letter writers find something worthwhile in my responses. I hope my readers discover insights that apply to their lives even if the questions don’t. Your question was an important one to ask, and a tough one to answer. Thank you for writing.

 

Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash