When the route out of lockdown leads back to FOMO
Since March 2020, I have had more worries than I can possibly count. But there’s been one that previously plagued me which hasn’t been on the list: whether everyone is having a better time than me. I have been afraid of so much, but for the first time in years, I haven’t struggled with FOMO, the fear of missing out. But now, as lockdown restrictions ease, I can feel that familiar nagging doubt: am I having as many bucket list experiences as I can squeeze in? Are my weekends worth writing home about, or at least posting on Instagram?
For a whole year, I didn’t have to worry about whether my holiday plans were exotic enough or whether everyone else was having a merrier Christmas. I didn’t have to scour the pages of Time Out and there were no parties to host. While the whole world was hunkering down to stay safe from Covid-19, I knew the Jones’ were probably having a rough time too; I didn’t have to keep up with them.
Because I knew everyone was contending with their own battles – whether juggling home-schooling with work or having no work at all, grieving a lost loved one, or grieving all the parts of life which had been lost – I was aware of all the ways my life could feel even more impossible. The greener grass lay firmly in a post-pandemic future, not other people’s back gardens.
Back to normality?
But as the world starts to reopen, we are again able to draw comparisons. Ironically, as more becomes available, the fear of scarcity seems even more pronounced, as we fight for the limited spaces at restaurants and hotels, wanting to claim our slice of the joy that has been denied us for so long. And now we can visit hairdressers and beauticians, there is no longer an excuse for not keeping up appearances. We again have the luxury of vanity – a privilege that feels like a burden.
I think it’s telling that FOMO didn’t pester me during an actual crisis. The insidious voice of envy that says my life isn’t good enough is evidence that I am, in fact, fortunate, safe and that I have enough. FOMO is not the sign of a suffering mind or body, but an aggrieved ego. And perhaps our ego can only make a bid for attention once our mental and physical health is reasonably sound.
I think that is why God warns us away from jealousy (if we were to update the tenth commandment, it could read ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s Instagram feed’). It takes our eyes off what we already have, and it makes it harder to love others. You cannot serve someone who you want to outshine. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians – who were very familiar with the pressure to compete for status - love and envy are poles apart (1 Corinthians 13:4).
So, if you find yourself worried about whether you’re making every second of the newfound freedom count, then that can perhaps be a signal to give thanks. It means that not only do you have new opportunities, but that you’re in a position to take hold of them as well. It means, then, you’re already blessed in some pretty fundamental ways.
But, as Paul tries to press upon the Corinthians, blessings from God are not meant to boost our own ego or to build walls around us to keep us safe. They are invitations to emulate God’s own radical generosity; they are to be used to bless others. If you squeeze something too tightly, the blood stops flowing to your fingers and they turn white. I think that’s a picture of what happens to us spiritually when we try to cling onto whatever God has given to us to steward and share: we are less connected to the heartbeat of God.
Jesus told a story about a farmer whose crops did so well that he built bigger barns to store them in. He said to himself “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” The farmer had wanted to hoard what ultimately belonged to God. Jesus immediately followed this parable with His famous teaching on anxiety, telling the crowds not to worry about what they will wear or eat, ‘For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek His Kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well’ (Luke 12:30–1).
Jesus clearly understood how the pursuit of happiness and security often, paradoxically, breeds angst, and FOMO is a prime example of that. We can spend so much time and energy trying to ‘live our best lives’ that we miss the life actually in front of us, and all the ways God is moving in all of it – the parts that make it onto the highlights reel, and those we don’t feel like flaunting. But if your sights are set on eternity, rather than immediate gratification, and if you believe that a life well lived isn’t necessarily the one that gets the most likes (after all, the reactions to Jesus were mixed throughout his ministry and, by the end, there were only a handful willing to stay by him), then the fear of missing out need have no hold on you.
You are free to receive whatever blessings God bestows on you, but you don’t need to chase after them, or ground your self-esteem on them. And the best cure for wanting more? To give away what you think you can’t do without, and discover the spiritual riches already at your fingertips.