By Alex Chong Do Thompson
A few years ago, it was common to see people complain about #firstworldproblems.
For example, someone may have posted on social media, “My phone charger won’t reach my bed. So I can’t check my messages in the morning without getting up. #firstworldproblems”. It was a way for people to complain about things while simultaneously admitting that they really didn’t have anything to complain about. It’s a goofy saying. It makes light of the fact that there are people in the world with legitimate problems like lack of food or unsafe living conditions.
I hope people don’t use it anymore. However, I’m not cool enough to keep track of things like that. My point, though, is, as Americans we have an amazing life when compared to most of the world.
Have you ever thought about the miracle that is the flush toilet? When I was deployed we had to use portable toilets, like what you normally find at construction sites or an outdoor festival. Now that wouldn’t have been bad in and of itself, except I was in a warzone. If nature called in the middle of the night, I had to get fully dressed in my boots and cammies, put on 50 pounds of armor, fumble around in the dark for my M-16, and then walk approximately 30 yards to the Porta Potty.
After dealing with that for seven months, I can’t use a toilet without thanking my lucky stars for indoor plumbing.
I’d stop short of calling the United States a paradise, but it’s pretty close. We enjoy a level of convenience that has never been experienced in human history. We walk around with cell phones that can get anything from food to new clothes delivered directly to our climate-controlled homes. We’re literally surrounded by miracles.
My belief is, in our rush to make life more comfortable for ourselves, we’ve created a cure that’s worse that the disease. At any given moment, we are inundated with text messages, emails, advertisements, and a host of other things that strengthen the illusion of a separate “self,” which Buddha warned us about 2,500 years ago.
Our egos crave instant gratification, and now they have it.
That’s a bad thing. If the illusion of a separate “self” is the source of our suffering, then the ego is the battery that gives the illusion power. We charge our “ego battery” every time we satisfy our cravings with same-day delivery, microwaveable food, angry political commentary, etc. Additionally, the stronger our false sense of “self” becomes, the more cut off we feel from the people around us.
Recognizing this, is it any wonder we feel so alone in a society that places total emphasis on our sense of “me” and actively works destroy our sense of “we”?
To be clear, I’m not excluding myself from any of this. I’m a slave to modern convenience just like everyone else. But there’s a reason ancient Zen masters warned against the use of luxurious beds. They felt strongly that a comfortable life made spiritual practice harder. I wonder what they would think of us now.
Did we sell our souls for video games? Can we ever get them back?
I think we can, but we need to be strategic in our use of spiritual practice in order to counter the negative effects of our modern lifestyle. We need to actually visit meditation centers as opposed to watching videos on YouTube. We need to visit a relative or close friend when we’re bored instead of turning on the TV. In short, we need to tell our egos “no” from time to time and give up instant gratification in exchange for real human connection. Imagine what the world would be like if people did volunteer work for fun instead of “retail therapy” at the mall.
I’m not saying I have all of the answers. I am suggesting a text message will never feed our spirits the way a phone call will; a poke on social media will never warm our hearts like a hug.
Perhaps we should focus less on giving our egos what they want, and focus more on giving our spirits what they need.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
- There are Buddhas Everywhere: Why We Need to Get Rid of the American Me-First Mindset - September 18, 2021
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- A Buddhist “How-to” on Forgiveness - February 15, 2021