Managing the Stress of First-World Problems

When I first heard the term “first world problems”, I immediately related to the message behind it: proper perspective. As a professional apologizer, I often hear the complaints of people who respond to first-world problems in a wide range of ways. When I started working at the Lexus dealership 12 years ago, I was shocked at the fluctuations in different people’s perspectives. I would listen to an upset customer while thinking, “how blessed you must be in your life, that this small scratch on your car is the only reason you can find to get ruffled.” I was astounded at the level of passion over truly mundane issues, and hypothesized that the customer was filling the void left from a lack of more serious problems. Over the past decade, I have been the recipient of rants ranging from incorrect leasing paperwork to wrinkled leather seats to sub-par free car washes. I have listened patiently to scoldings because someone didn’t get invited to a Lexus party, or they had to stop at a gas station to put fuel in their free Lexus loaner.

While I certainly understand that a courtesy vehicle with a low fuel light is a great inconvenience, my confusion stems from the intensity of emotion which accompanies these grievances. The question which bubbles around in my brain as I listen to a harsh protest regarding a minor infraction is invariably, “Is this reaction appropriate for the significance of the problem?”

Conversely, I have witnessed customers with much more catastrophic concerns (engine failure, flat tire, wrecked car) who are impressively calm and reasonable given the extreme difficulty associated with the situation. These are the people who understand that there are more important things in life. They have faith that the matter will ultimately be resolved. “It’s just a car,” they muse, or “I’m sure you will fix things, no worries.”  The variance between the reactions of these two camps of clients is astounding. It makes me want to ask each group about their preferred method of stress management. Someone is clearly meditating or doing yoga. Others are possibly drinking too much espresso.

As a former student of psychology, I know that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains that we humans cannot be upset about our inner peace (or lack thereof) if our stomachs are empty or if we are homeless. Safety, hunger, water and companionship all trump the need for self-actualization, so our “first world problems” -like the incompatibility of our smartphone’s bluetooth to pair with our luxury car, for example- would never be an issue for someone struggling to feed their family of six.

Clearly, in my luxury environment, all of the problems I resolve are first-world issues. Ultimately nobody is going hungry or suffering in the cold. That being said, I can testify that not all of the clients I encounter have achieved equal levels of  the highest of Maslow’s hierarchy need, self-transcendence.  At this level, the individual reaches a state of being that allows them to cope appropriately with daily vexations. I always think of what the movie character Ace Ventura (played by Jim Carrey) called “spiritual creaminess”: the person realizes that the true inner peace comes from loving others, showing kindness, and finding a higher goal outside of one’s own personal concerns. Those who realize that they are not the epicenter of the universe are more gentle when they complain to a manager, because they have empathy for the person receiving the protest, and they understand that in an imperfect, complex world, things will go wrong.

My co-workers sometimes wonder how I am able to withstand the daily barrage of remonstrations. Sometimes it does stress me to the point of tears, as it did today. A stream of back-to-back gripe sessions can take a toll, but in truth, it wasn’t the complaints that ultimately caused that drop of salty water to trickle down my cheek. It was the the thought process that proceeded it.

At my highest level of stress, I made the grave mistake of thinking about Kevin. I entertained thoughts of self-pity, and then chastised myself after I compared them to the intense burdens that Kevin faces in his job. In that moment, I almost couldn’t bear the mental picture. I have 4 employees, he has 40. I’m in charge of one tiny department, he manages an extremely large one. I hear 5 complaints a day, he hears 25.  My heart began to swell, and I wanted to run to him and just give him a big ole hug. I desperately wished I could blink my eyes and magically make all of his pressures disappear. It was overwhelming. That’s when the moist eyes let a drop fall, a single drop, as I did everything I could to hold it together.

I always ask Kevin how he finds his spiritual creaminess, how he is able to give so much to his family when his professional burdens are so heavy. He never comes home and whines about a shitty day. I never hear him snippy or cranky after an especially grueling 15-hour ordeal. On the contrary, he seems to know when my world is taxing, and does all he can to ease my burden. Tonight he took me out for sushi date night and let me talk out all my difficult encounters. The last time I got this stressed out, he slipped an encouraging greeting card into my planner. The time before that, I got flowers at work. It should be the other way around, since his job is harder; it should be me helping with his stress. But it’s not, and it baffles me.

The only explanation I can offer, is that perhaps Kevin’s stress management actually comes from doing for others. He watches over Forrest’s progress, he checks in on my well-being, he calls his folks for an update. Conceivably, Kevin has intuitively figured out that if he focuses on other people, than it is not possible to get overly worked up about his own frustrations. Just maybe, his altruistic nature is what allows him to work 70+ -hour weeks without self-combusting. He does not allow self-pity to enter into his consciousness, knowing that if he acknowledged the out-of-whack proportions of what he does for himself compared to what he does for others, that he might possibly turn into one of those people who complain about a wrinkle in their plush leather driver’s seat.

I’m so grateful that he is not the type of person who thinks he is the epicenter of the universe, as I am grateful for all of the customers who are kind and gracious when they share their concerns. The ones who yell inappropriately are truly in the minority, and I try to feel empathy for their way of life. As the new year unfolds, I hope that I can find inspiration from all of them, carving out a path for managing my first-world problems in a way that shows some dignity and grace. The good news is, that on those days that I cannot, at least I have a Kevin in my life to take me out for sushi.

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