New York – After the first week of self-isolation, I was startled to hear the same sentiment from friends on different continents: The pandemic is scary, but one silver lining is the total absence of FOMO (fear of missing out). They said it was a relief to have stopped worrying that, somewhere, friends were having fun without them.
In lockdown, there’s no fear of missing out, because you know that no one is having fun, anywhere, with anyone. And the social media sharing of vacation and concert photos that used to foster FOMO has evaporated.
What we have now is something very different. Not FOMO, but ROMO: the reality of missing out. With FOMO, you worry that what you’re doing isn’t cool enough, or Instagrammable enough. With ROMO, you know it isn’t.
The old uncertainty — is my life boring? — has been replaced by new and bigger ones: Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Will I lose my job? Will someone I love die? And when, when will this end?
ROMO means no traveling, no restaurants, no birthday parties. Choice paralysis has gone out the window because there are few choices to make. (“Hmm, should we eat in tonight or … eat in tonight?”)
Some things are delayed (baseball, weddings, haircuts), while others are canceled (Wimbledon, Burning Man, feeling safe in a grocery store).
Some of these I’ve found unexpectedly heart-wrenching. In Massachusetts, where I live, mid-April always means Patriots’ Day, a local Monday holiday commemorating the start of the American Revolution. There are small-town parades with kids on decorated tricycles, an 11 a.m. Red Sox game, the Boston Marathon, re-enactments of the Battle of Lexington and Concord under the bright April sun. Afterward, the minutemen and redcoats share Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
But this year, the soldiers did not meet at the Old North Bridge. Paul Revere did not ride.
All these cancellations can make it seem as if life is on hold — but it’s really still moving forward, and we’ll never get this time back. That’s the reality of missing out.
The authors, directors and musicians who were set to launch their ideas this spring will probably never get the attention their books, movies and albums deserve. The athletes set to compete at the 2020 Olympics may not qualify again when the games are eventually held. High school seniors won’t have a prom. New graduates won’t have a commencement ceremony. Grandparents will miss their new grandbabies’ early days. Some deaths may never be mourned with a funeral.
As for the postponements, people waiting on knee replacements or IVF procedures are stuck in a painful limbo. Missed mammograms and blood-pressure checks could have repercussions beyond the quarantine.
No wonder calls to crisis hotlines are up — in some cases by 40 percent, in others by almost 900 percent.
To combat the dark cloud this conjures, the human mind instinctively searches for silver linings, such as the absence of FOMO. Perhaps the fear of missing out was only ever the product of a 10-year bull market and 3.6 percent unemployment, the side effect of an economic boom we knew wouldn’t last forever. When paper millionaires seemed to pop up overnight and top firms fought for talent, it was only natural for some to worry they weren’t making the most of their opportunities — for money, for advancement, for fun. Now we’re glad to have any opportunities left at all.
The reality of missing out, on the other hand, is like an unwanted houseguest who has overstayed her meager welcome. We have no choice but to accept what she’s brought us: lessons in perspective, gratitude and patience.
The sooner she leaves, the better.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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