A few years ago when I was the editor of my running club’s newsletter, a friend sent me an article she’d written but wasn’t sure should be included. It was about her experiences running the Boston Marathon, and her concern was that other runners might think she was trashing the race. She’d had such high expectations going into it—it’s Boston, after all. Being disappointed there would be like Neil Armstrong scanning the lunar landscape and saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant boring ball of rocks and craters. Meh. Let’s go home, Buzz.” Yet she was disappointed; it simply wasn’t the amazing experience she’d thought it would be. I told her that was all the more reason for her to have written the article and for it to appear, which ultimately it did.
It wasn’t exactly the WaPo breaking Watergate; I just liked that she wrote something from a different perspective. Too much of the time it’s nearly impossible to experience something without thinking about how you should be experiencing it. And when reality fails to live up to hype and expectation, we may wonder if there’s something wrong with us. FOMO—fear of missing out—usually describes the feeling that everyone else is doing something fun without you, but it can also describe the uneasy feeling that even when you are included, you’re still not having any fun. Not everyone suffers from chronic FOMO, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit it does happen, perhaps more so now than ever before given how much of our self-esteem is contingent upon numbers of likes and follows.
FOMO is nearly a permanent state for dwellers in places like New York City, where even if you’re on the A list, you suck, because guess what, there’s an A+ list, and even the A+ people are wondering if there’s a party somewhere for people so awesome they’ve created a whole other alphabet for their benefit. There were times when I lived there that I felt no matter what I did, someone would make sure to let me know I’d done it wrong. I was not a runner back then and it came as a complete surprise to me to discover one day that the New York marathon ran right past my apartment. From my balcony I watched the elites glide through Mile 17 followed by ever-larger packs of runners. I never for a moment figured on being a marathoner myself one day and would have laughed had someone suggested it; I just enjoyed being part of the moment. It was unexpected, and it was exciting. Then later that week I heard a coworker bragging about how he had grandstand seats near the finish line where he got to see all the real drama unfold. “There’s no drama at, like, Mile 17. It’s all at the end, and we were right there!” He’d heard me talking about watching from my balcony, you see, and simply could not let me think I’d actually experienced anything remotely significant.
I’d be lying if I said these situations don’t bother me, yet increasingly in my life I’ve avoided letting FOMO become a chronic condition. Even back in my New York girl-about-town days, I found myself shrugging off people like grandstand guy. When one of my gal pals was desperate to get into the it-club of the moment and we stood in line for three hours (and we were only the second group in line, mind you, so everyone behind us waited even longer), I did not look longingly at those who had sashayed past the velvet ropes and were already no doubt having the time of their lives. I laughed. No noisy crowded room on earth is worth waiting three hours to enter, and our doing so could only be seen as comical. Indeed, when we finally reached the promise land, it was so terrible that we ended up leaving an hour later. As we exited, the people who had been behind us in line looked longingly our way.
I say all this as part of my reflections on the recent solar eclipse. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I did not make the trek downstate to be in the path of totality; I didn’t even get myself a pair of goofy eclipse-viewing glasses. I did make a pinhole contraption of sorts, but ultimately I abandoned it as the light began to dim and just sat on the front porch watching a pretty Monarch butterfly perched on a flower, slowly fanning its feathery wings. It was a nice moment, and an unexpected one. Later I’d see social media posts from friends about their experiences, many of which shared a common theme: totally worth the hype. One woman said she actually laughed out loud at the moment of totality, it was so surprisingly wonderful; another noted that her husband, possibly the most cynical human being who ever lived, admitted to her that he was glad they’d seen it. Still another wrote about the awesomeness, in the true sense of the word, of seeing two very ordinary things like the sun and the moon come together to create something quite magical. “Pictures cannot do it justice,” he asserted.
This could have been a Mile 17 FOMO moment for me, since the only view of the eclipse I got was through pictures, which are cool but obviously don’t come anywhere near the experience of being right there. But I don’t feel like I’m missing out. In fact, oddly enough, I’m quite enjoying hearing about it through others. There’s something to be said for any experience, glorious or disappointing, once-in-a-lifetime grand or quietly small. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a Boston Marathon experience at this point; I’ve still got a long way to get there, and who knows, I may ultimately be disappointed. One way or another, though, I’ll probably have to something to say about it.