First-World Sufferings and the Problem with Complaining

For the last few years, I’ve looked forward to the first of the year. Filing taxes are a pain, and I become more libertarian every time I have to endure it. But we do get a nice tax refund. So every year my wife and I get to decide how we are going to spend the money. Last year, we spent the money on moving expenses. This year, we were going to be financially responsible and put it toward college savings for our kids or toward my retirement savings.

But then the weather warmed up. For those of us in the Deep South, Spring is fun but fleeting. The humidity and temperature combine to make life uncomfortable for several months. So there is a small sliver of time to enjoy comfortably warm weather. And March contained one of those days. Sometime in mid-March, my wife turned on our downstairs A/C. It didn’t work. The repairman told us that both our HVAC units — not just the downstairs one — were failing. We had to replace both.

Photo Credit: jackiebese via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: jackiebese via Compfight cc

I reacted to this news like I’d been financially ruined. Nevermind that the tax refund would fully cover the replacement, though the refund would be nearly completely spent on the units. Nevermind that our family budget isn’t designed to depend on our tax refund, and so our monthly budget wouldn’t need to change. I fixated on the unpleasant fact that our entire tax refund would be spent on home repairs. I studied the financial information that our budgeting software gave us, and I became increasingly stressed about the situation. I wasn’t going to be able to put any of the tax refund into either college savings or retirement savings.

I couldn’t believe our misfortune.

I was so frustrated with the situation, I even considered only replacing one unit and letting the second unit limp along. It only took me a few seconds of imagining my wife’s response to this suggestion to make me realize it was a terrible idea.

So both units were replaced, and the tax refund was fully spent.

The afternoon that I accepted my fate, I walked from my office to a local coffeeshop. I needed to get out of the office to be able to work on an upcoming sermon. As I sat there, sipped my coffee, and looked out the large storefront windows, my mind was dominated by the unsettling cost of the repair.

I kept imagining an alternative world where I didn’t have to repair the HVAC units and instead could put that money toward college savings or retirement savings. (It shows you how stressed I was about finances that my idle daydreams were about my HVAC units working rather than me being a wealthy writer living in the English countryside.)

But then, as I was sipping my coffee, feeling oppressed and downtrodden, I thought about the absurdity of my situation: I was sipping hand-pressed coffee at a not-so-cheap coffeeshop, lamenting that I had to spend money I actually had to replace two HVAC units in my house. Why two units? Because I could afford a two-storied house that has a dedicated HVAC unit for each floor.

No. I’m not rich. And my retirement savings and college savings  are not even where they should be for someone my age with three kids.

But I get to have two HVAC units in my house when many people in the world don’t get heating and A/C –– or a house.

And I was convicted by this. Yes, Christians in the “first-world” have problems and sufferings. We aren’t immune to accidental deaths or terminal illnesses. We still face the evils of how humans treat one another, whether physical violence, systemic injustices, or emotional harm.

But many of the problems and inconveniences that we complain about are only problems and inconveniences at all because we are so fortunate to have the benefits of the first-world.

HVAC replacement wouldn’t be a problem if you couldn’t afford heating and air.

Expensive home repairs wouldn’t be a problem if you couldn’t afford a house.

Your computer troubles wouldn’t be a problem if you couldn’t afford a computer.

Your poor cell phone reception wouldn’t be a problem if you couldn’t afford a phone.

Your car troubles wouldn’t be a problem if you couldn’t afford a car.

Your long wait at the doctor’s office wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t have access to healthcare.

Too often we complain about issues that show how fortunate we really are. But do we realize that these sufferings are the indicators that we live a very blessed and very comfortable life?

After all, these sufferings are usually just the removal of comforts and conveniences. If we didn’t already have these comforts and conveniences, then we would not suffer at their removal.

I’m not saying that it is wrong to be frustrated at these first-world sufferings. It’s still annoying. We might still lose sleep over it. We might rant about our misfortunes to friends and family.

I am suggesting two things, though.

First, we should put these first-world sufferings in their larger context. These frustrations are minor compared to the comforts and luxuries we have. (Again, let me remind you that I am differentiating between frustrations like your HVAC system failing and the suffering of having cancer. The latter is not a minor.) And our reactions to them should reflect their minor status: it’s frustrating to endure these misfortunes, but in the larger view it’s not much more than a frustrating experience.

Second, our frustration at these first-world sufferings should live alongside our joy and amazement at what we do have. G. K. Chesterton writes somewhere about how we should be struck not by odd noses, but by how very odd it is to have a nose. In a similar vein, let’s be overjoyed at the blessings of living in the comforts that we have, not just when everything is working and convenient for us, but even when there are inconveniences. The joyous and amazing part of living where we do and when we do isn’t that our A/C or cars or computers don’t need repairing, but that we have them at all.

(Or, if you struggle with these two suggestions, just try to imagine explaining to a family living in areas of the world afflicted with drought, famine, war, and epidemics why fixing your car or replacing your HVAC units is a strain on your life.)

I know the difficulty of this. But, fortunately or unfortunately, we won’t lack opportunities to keep these frustrations in perspective. I have been given the opportunity to try to do better with such situations, as I was informed last week that our family’s minivan had to be replaced.

We’ll see how well I can live what I’ve written.

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