The Starving Children Guilt Trip

Having grown up in an immigrant household with a Prussian German father and a Polish mother, I became acquainted early on in life with discipline and guilt. My father majored in one and my mother in the other—you can guess which was which. Given the choice (which I never was), I would much rather have the spanking than the guilt trip. The stinging pain of the spanking passed quickly. Having paid the price for the misdeed, I could put the occurrence behind me and go on with life. On the contrary, the quiet guilt seemed to linger forever. No amount of apologies could make it go away. The disapproval from my parents and shame from the act stuck with me like a shadow I couldn’t shake.

My mother’s favorite guilt trip revolved around dinner. Any complaint about what was offered was met with, “There are millions of starving children around the world who would be happy to be eating this food.” My brothers and I never came up with an acceptable retort to this declaration of fact. However, on one occasion, my oldest brother in his mid-teens offered my mother $2 to mail his food to them. It was not one of his brightest moments.

The Good Guilt Trip

To this day when I see food wasted, or thrown away, I can hear my mother’s voice chanting the “starving children” speech. The guilt still lingers somewhere in the back of my mind, but now it is a good guilt trip. While my mother’s speech did little to make me grateful for my food as a child, it has done something valuable for me as an adult. Those lingering words have always reminded me that there are people and problems outside of myself, and that I cannot ignore them. Each time I hear her voice while biting into my dinner snaps me out of my comfortable reality and puts the needs of others in front of me.

That “good guilt trip” has and continues to motivate me to do something about the problems of world hunger and poverty. The effect of this “good guilt” evidences itself in many way. It has motivated me to work with an organization that feeds the homeless here in my backyard. It has motivated me to work with Agora and InvestnUs, helping start profitable socially conscious businesses that will sustainably improve the basic living conditions where those millions of starving children my mother once spoke of actually reside. It has motivated me to give generously of my resources and think about what financial legacy I can leave behind.


The hashtag “#firstworldproblems” has become rather popular on social media sites. KnowYourMeme defines it as “frustrations and complaints that are only experiences by privileged individuals in wealth countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.”

Another definition from Urban Dictionary has a bit more revealing sting to it: “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.” Ouch. The reality is, #firstworldproblems is a callous way of admitting that many of the things we consider to be “problems” in our daily lives are a slap in the face to those who are literally starving and dying in poverty and oppression. I think it is actually a symptom of the inner guilt we often feel that we live so comfortably compared to the rest of the world.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take #firstworldproblems so lightly. Perhaps that inner guilt should cause us to stop and think about something—and someone—outside of ourselves. Perhaps that inner guilt should lead us to do more than tweet #firstworldproblems – and instead do something about the disparity between our lives and the lives of those in developing communities. Perhaps my mother was onto something when she pointed out the absurdity of our food complaints given the relative abundance that surrounded us.

The Power of Guilt

Guilt is powerful. When not dealt with wisely, it can lead to feelings of helplessness and even hopelessness. But it can be a motivator for good, causing us to consider things we wouldn’t otherwise and motivate us toward making a difference.

We generally view guilt as innately negative, and in most contexts it is. But to the extent that it motivates us to reach out to those in need around the world, how can it not be good?

What’s an example of a “good guilt trip” in your life? How can some of your #firstworldproblems motivate you to be a world changer?