I first heard the term FOMO (fear of missing out) on a hike in the mountains with some former students and my husband. There were five of us present. After gaining some elevation we stopped for lunch at a small gloriously clear blue lake. As we ate we began to talk about taking a dip. We had no bathing suits, and we knew the water would be absurdly cold, but it glittered before us temptingly.
The first brave soul peeled off his shirt and jumped in. He hooted for a moment then stroked out “It’s perfect!” he said when he surfaced, beckoning the rest of us. My husband followed, executing a perfect dive and swimming out to a floating log, apparently unflummoxed by the cold. The other woman gave me a meaningful look. “We have to go in, or we’ll have FOMO,” she said. When she explained I knew exactly what she meant. FOMO had lured me into cold water many times before. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go into that chilly lake. So she and I lowered ourselves carefully off the rocks. The shock abated quickly. Our skin tingled. It was pure physical exhilaration. There was mental exhilaration too — we had taken up the challenge, and we weren’t sorry.
There are two things at play with FOMO. One is the nature of the experience that might be missed. How irresistible is it? How dangerous is it? Will it ever happen again? Then there is the lure of the group experience. We’re all affected by that allure differently. Some of us can’t stand being left out. Some of us see ourselves as loners, less responsive to the seduction of a group. In our group of five that day, one man remained resolutely on the rocks — he knew he didn’t want to immerse himself in cold water. He didn’t mind being the odd man out.
So many life choices involve knowing when to stay and when to leave, when to leap and when to stay put, when to separate from the group and when to remain under its umbrella. Alas, there is no guide to consult for making such choices, only what our guts tell us.
I am living these days under the protection and care of a loving husband and a community of close friends. I move through my activities feeling like everyone else, much as I’ve always felt. Writing, taking walks, socializing, making plans for the future. I mostly brush my discomfort and growing weakness aside, trying not to deny it, but nor giving it undue attention. But there are moments when I am acutely aware that I’m traveling on a path alone. Certain things underscore this: doctors’ visits, using my speech device in public, carting my nighttime ventilator on a trip to the coast with friends. At those times I separate myself from the pack, knowing I’m different.
I did not elect to follow this path of mine, but I’m finding it to be interesting nonetheless, and I want to share its joys and fascinations with others. But being here also points up the deeper reality of all our lives — however it may appear outwardly, we travel alone, whether we’re nearing death or not.
When I contemplate my death there is a generous dollop of FOMO involved (if it makes any sense to call it that). I hate the thought of not seeing the children my son might have. I want to read the books my friends and students will write. I want to see my husband grow old gracefully and gradually. I want to see a cure for ALS. And there is so much else in the future that I can’t begin to imagine that might surprise and delight me, all of which will unravel without me.
I have mostly accepted the idea of missing out on these things because my travels now are so fully engaging — rewarding. I invite you to join me in witnessing what I’m seeing. The depths of human kindness and compassion. The joys of a simplified life. The intricacy and complexity of the human body, its ability to breathe, to walk, to think. I thank my remaining muscles for carrying on when others are failing. I have never felt more aware of being a collection of atoms assembled temporarily, breathing, hearing, seeing, and now, getting ready to disperse. And this understanding of my own body has become a template for seeing the whole world with new eyes, the blooming and dying all around us, the beauty of that recurring cycle. I am no Pollyanna: There is hatred aplenty out there in the world, and cruelty too, but if you blink there is so much more. Companionship, hummingbirds, snow, books, silence.
I’m probably wrong to think of this as a potential FOMO experience for you because you will get here eventually, and there’s certainly no need to rush. But I’m writing to include you in what I’m seeing and feeling in hopes that you can slow down, set your ambitions and obsessions aside for a moment, and experience some of these gifts before your final days. I know you can’t go the distance — yet — but we can travel side by side for a while, sharing what we both see so as not to miss out, alone together. Then I will be the one alone on the rock watching the rest of you swim.