We humans have always been prone to wonder: What if I’m left behind? What if I’m forgotten? What if I blew my only chance at success? Why is everyone else having such a great life?
Now we have an easy descriptor for this below-the-surface panic that shapes our behavior, thoughts, and prayers. It’s Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO. Now in my 50s, I’m more inclined than in earlier years to experience the rear-view-mirror corollary, which I’ve dubbed Fear Of Having Missed Out (FOMHO).
We learn FOMO/FOHMO early. “But Mom, everyone else is going!” a fifth-grader wails after a parent says no to a mall trip. My mother’s stock response in these instances was usually, “If everyone else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you follow them?” The question was meant to warn us about blindly following the pack, yet I remember thinking to myself, I probably would. I can swim! Jumping seemed far less scary to me than being excluded.
Our fears of being left out can serve a purpose. According to psychologist Audrey Sanz, attentiveness to social dynamics is so essential to our survival that it is wired into our neurobiology. “Because being left out is considered that important an event for us to pay attention to and to respond to quickly, we actually have a part of our brain that is specialized for sensing if we are being left out,” she said. “Not having vital information or getting the impression that one is not a part of the ‘in’ group is enough for many individuals' amygdala to engage the stress/activation response or the ‘fight or flight’ response.”
Many of us come closest to the kind of adrenaline-fueled FOMO/FOHMO social awareness that forged alert communication among our forebears (say, a group of pioneers crossing the prairie) when we check up on our pals, frenemies, and online acquaintances via social media.
A 2013 study on social media’s effect on our FOMO tells the tale of our overtaxed amygdalae, the portion of our brains that help process emotion and fear. Researchers surveyed the responses of more than 1,000 people with statements like, “I fear others are having more rewarding experiences than me,” “It is important that I understand my friends' ‘in jokes,’” and “Sometimes, I wonder if I spend too much time keeping up with what is going on.” FOMO numbers skew higher among millennials, but none of us are exempt from fearing being left behind, or of being haunted by regret.
A 30-something friend with a brand-new baby wrestled with the "either/or" nature of a work decision: a promotion that would be great for her career, but would require significant travel. She turned down the position, but she spent the next few months haunted by the possibility that she'd never receive an opportunity like that again.
Some Christians will respond to such quandaries with a trusty “Seasons Of Life” sermonette. “It's not the season for that promotion right now," we’ll say, as if we can guarantee there'll be plenty of time tomorrow to climb that mountain (and Instagram the journey), take that promotion, or succeed in that relationship. In this season, your job is to bloom where you’re planted.
Of course, it makes sense to encourage others (and ourselves) to find purpose in our current circumstances. Bur when we hustle toward contentment by disregarding our fears of missing out, we ask people to surrender to a fuzzy version of this grace. By ignoring those fears and the subtle idols of self-importance and control they erect in our hearts, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the temptation to perform contentment instead of actually finding it.
And older adults can’t pretend that we won’t experience a growing sense of having missed out. The autumn and winter years of our lives are, by definition, a time to accept what we didn’t do and can never reclaim. It is soul-sobering to recognize that life doesn’t come with a reset button. Unprocessed FOHMO can turn us into emotional hoarders as we age. Even when we might look content, regret and bitterness over past experiences can rob us of our present by keeping us focused on the if-onlys.
These regrets are tied to envy. My favorite working definition for envy is “I want what I have, and I want what you have, too.” The Tenth Commandment tells us not to covet our neighbor’s spouse, servants, livestock, or stuff. We’re just as prone to coveting as the ancient Israelites were. Instead of donkeys, it’s dinner parties, family vacations, and whatever news we see on Facebook.
Our always-connected but lonely culture bombards us with reminders that we are going to miss out—or that we just did. We’re giant losers in our culture’s competition as a result. Even though our amagdalae are always on, preparing us to fight or flee, there’s nowhere to run, and no one to fight. Instead, we live with envy. How are we to cultivate contentment when contentment becomes just another thing we fear we’ll miss out on?
When Paul told Timothy that godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6), he was reminding all of us that contentment is the overflow, not the cure, for our fear of missing out. God knows how often our actions might in fact be fueled by our fears of missing out. He knows precisely how far below the surface our FOMO/FOHMO thoughts begin, and how deep they run inside of us. Facing the fears that drive us is the only way we’ll conquer them with his help. Jesus didn’t come to save fearless versions of ourselves, but the real us, just as we are— overworked amygdalae and all.
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