Friday, June 06, 2008

The Overshare and the First World Problem

The first-world problem is an idea I first heard about when a college friend started a facebook group about them, perhaps the term was his invention. Prime examples: Starbucks put lowfat and not skim milk in my latte; I'm too tired from my i-banking job to make time for yoga; my Greenwich Village apartment is too small to comfortably fit my 18 boxes worth of clothing. Not all first-world problems are explicitly materialistic. Sometimes they're just dilemmas that require conditions of comfort to arise, such as, 'Does he like me? Let's discuss it over drinks.' What ties together all first-world problems is that while a friend might, just might, be sympathetic, if you allow the NYT Styles section to interview you, mentioning these sorts of problems will cause an avalanche of comments suggesting you volunteer in a soup kitchen--or better yet, in Iraq--to put things in perspective. It's quite clear that the share becomes the overshare definitively only once the fluffier sections of the New York Times take up your story. A commenter telling Emily Gould to stop being narcissitic (implication: stop being narcisisstic on the cover of a major magazine) might have a point, but until your friend reaches Carrie levels of self-pity, to be a good friend you let the other person vent, even if the complaint in question is objectively of little consequence.

But at a certain point, even friends lose interest in one's nonsense, or at least this is how it ought to work, (fictitious) Ms. Bradshaw's (fictitious)experiences to the contrary. Inner turmoil about problems that would sound idiotic if voiced have one rightful home, and that is in fiction. If a character in a novel is sufficiently developed, it is possible to identify with that character enough that its problems become your own, and that it starts to make sense why something that was not objectively tragic could cause immense misery. One expects novels to speak of the whole range of human situations, not just the Important ones, so it will be the rare reader of Proust who gets to the part where Swann realizes he's over Odette and thinks, 'With all the poverty and misery in nineteenth-century Europe, he worries about this?'

Reality entertainment of all kinds removes the barrier that allows us to truly care about first-world problems not our own. Once the problems are of another, real-life person, they elicit calls for real-world perspective. Obviously a fictional character fussing about her 18 boxes of clothes comes off as a fool--as Carrie does in the "Sex and the City" movie--but the standard for narcissism is that much lower when real people are involved.

Fiction works as an outlet to allow us to acknowledge that even ridiculous-sounding problems matter, without taking away from our real-life acknowledgement that on another level, they do not. It permits us to look at narcissism with compassion. What it also allows is for us to cover the full range of human experience without humiliating actual, existing people.

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