My blogging buddy Karen Allendoerfer wrote a touching, honest piece yesterday about her “First World problem,” the angst around her trip with her 11th-grade daughter to find the best college fit. Karen often gets me thinking along new lines, and I read her post just after answering a question from another blogging (and dharma) friend, Peace Paul. He had asked me to elaborate about how I see our responsibility to and for others.
Around the world, with governments and insurgents bombing and starving whole cities, with minority groups fleeing persecution and genocide, with children being conscripted into guerrilla armies, with vast regions lacking clean water and adequate nutrition, with seas rising and threatening to wipe out communities, do our First World problems matter?
The answer is yes, for both personal and spiritual reasons.
I’ll start with the personal, using my own recent history as an example. It’s my tale of two sons — Thomas, born in 1986, and Carl, born in 1994. I’ve gone through Karen’s current First-World problem twice. Even though both of my sons won early admission to their first-choice school, that period in their lives was not an easy one.
I’d rather not go into detail about Carl. We’ll just say his senior year in high school disappeared under a haze of illegal substances, and he was not able to start college. Instead, he spent almost three months in a recovery center, and the two hardest days of my life involved getting and keeping him there. He has now been clean for two and a half years. That’s a First-World problem with a happy ending despite severe suffering along the way.
I hardly remember that suffering now, because of what happened next. Severe anxiety had always plagued Thomas, and at some early age he learned to self-medicate with alcohol. My wife and I didn’t understand the severity of his issues while he was still living at home. He graduated from college and eventually found a job, but he continued to live like a student in Charlottesville, Virginia, frequently bar-hopping at The Corner.
That’s how he spent most of the day last May 31. Then, around 1:45 a.m. June 1, he skateboarded home from The Corner, without a helmet, in the rain, and down a steep hill. The fall killed him. He was 29. That’s another First World problem, but does it matter? Is Karen being selfish with her concerns about her daughter? I don’t think so.
Now the spiritual (and psychological) reason. You hear the word metta a lot in Buddhism. It’s loving kindness, goodwill, compassion. Wisely, Buddhism teaches that in order to live with metta for others, we start with ourselves. How can we accept and love others if we don’t accept and love ourselves?
So, in metta meditations, we begin with a phrase like: “May I be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may I live happily.” Only after we have said those words a number of times and feel their impact do we change the words to be toward someone else, first someone close: “May you….” Then we’re ready to try it for someone more distant: “May he or she….” Eventually, we’re ready for “May they….” At first the “they” is, say, your family. But the circles get wider: neighborhood, town, and so on until we’re wishing metta to all sentient beings.
So even in the First World, we owe it to others to love ourselves first and not to simply dismiss our own suffering. Sure, we can do more to share our wealth with those who need it. We need not wait to do that. But true compassion can come only after we have learned to love ourselves, accept our own suffering, and learn to let it go in its own time.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine