City Mouse, Country Mouse: Thinking Through the Terrible Fear of Missing Out
“I married young and I’m consumed with regret over all the sexual experiences I’ll never have” — that’s the headline of an advice column in the Guardian this week. It’s a good headline, as they go, because it tells you almost everything you need to know about the dilemma that needs resolving.
In case you don’t want to click through, here’s the full query:
I met and married quite young and have always had a nagging feeling that I missed out on certain experiences. Some are quite ambitious, such as a threesome; others are more mundane, such as a one-night stand. I do enjoy my sex life but am sometimes overwrought by thoughts that I never “completed the album”, as it were. I am starting to resent people who have had more experiences, as if it’s a competition, even when I know that other aspects of my life have turned out far better than theirs… how can I get rid of this overwhelming feeling that I have missed out and there is a gap I will never be able to fill? — FOMO in Finchley
The answer the Guardian therapist gives is woefully insufficient. I’ll try to do a little better.
To experience “fear of missing out” (FOMO) is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a recurring trope in popular literature from Aesop’s fable of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Over two millennia ago, the Roman poet Ovid remarked that “The harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” To be alive around other people is to wonder, at least occasionally, if some of them don’t have it a little better than you. We should start by reassuring ourselves that FOMO is inescapable, though in time, if we’re lucky, it can lose its power over us.
In early 2014, when I was living in a halfway house in Culver City, I spent a lot of time with two men who were about my age and in the same parlous condition. Allan had grown up an evangelical, married young, and lost his virginity to his bride on their wedding night. They had been together more than 20 years, and he had never cheated (unless you consider Internet porn cheating) — but he had drank so heavily he damaged his liver. Allan’s wife had given him an ultimatum to sober up or she would leave, and so he had sought treatment.
Frank had been in a moderately successful “hair metal” band in the 1980s. Never married, though several times engaged, he told us once that he had kept count of every woman he had slept with, and he believed the number to be 1,070, give or take a few. Frank’s longest relationship had lasted six months.
Neither Frank nor Allan had children. When we met, I was going through my fourth divorce, and had two small kids. I had had my share of male and female partners — obviously, a lot more than Allan, and a good deal fewer than Frank.
You are smart readers. You can tell where this anecdote will lead. Each of us had had something the others wanted — or at least, that the other two were curious about. Though my “list,” to the extent that I can remember it, is barely one-fifth as long as Frank’s, I was impressed by a couple of the names he dropped and the stories of the groupies backstage. I was also deeply moved by Allan’s account, all the more so when I met his wife and saw the way that they still looked at each other. Allan, like FOMO in Finchley, admitted he longed to know what it was like to take just one other woman to bed — but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. “I’ve already messed up enough; the shame would kill me.”
(The city mouse, the country mouse, and the… suburban academic mouse, all in rehab together.)
At this point, my friends from socially conservative religious traditions wish to interject and say that the envy Frank and I experienced when we contemplated Allan was a God-given craving. Yes, my religious friends declare, Allan had the same addiction that Frank and I did, but he had something we didn’t and clearly wanted. To a religious conservative, my envy of Allan’s marriage to his first love is my own longing after the Good; Allan’s longing to know the kind of sexual variety that Frank and I had had is a manifestation of sin.
My more progressive readers, I can hear your eyerolls, as they are audible. To the secular mind, all three of us clearly struggled with shame and compulsion, and we had simply chosen three different ways to manifest our inner struggle. More importantly, even what we call our deepest desires vary from person to person. We might all find the idea of sexual variety and singleness appealing in some ways, and the idea of lifelong monogamy appealing in others. Many of us might even daydream about perpetual celibacy. When we see how others live their lives, we wonder if we’ve made a mistake — and in our wondering, we wrongly assume that what seems to make them happy would surely do the same for us. To the secular mind, Frank and Allan and I each had had our own form of abundant harvest, none better than the other. Gazing at each other’s fields in wistful envy was inevitable — and, in our particular cases, a distraction from the real work, which was on healing ourselves.
The query in the Guardian does more than focus on the fear of missing out. The writer says he is “sometimes overwrought by thoughts that I never ‘completed the album.’” It’s a good symbol: one imagines an old-fashioned photo album, the kind where you mount printed images with double-sided tape. We can imagine what he imagines: Here’s the page of losing the virginity; here, the one-night stand with the barmaid; here, the joining of the mile-high club somewhere over the North Atlantic; here - getting pride of place in the grand display - the long-hoped-for threesome with Maddie and Savannah in that sliding-down Best Western just outside of Paducah. And oh yes, here, in the back of the album, the last page, almost an embarrassed afterthought, that awkward fumbling — you couldn’t get it up, poor man — with your neighbor’s wife in the pool shed during the summer block party.
Here’s the thing about the notion of “completing the album:” there’s no sufficient number and variety of sexual experiences that will, in and of themselves, give you a sense of completion. Perhaps FOMO in Finchley will have a one-night stand, and it is not what he hoped, and he will have another to see if it is better, and it is so transcendently good he can’t resist one more. There will be a threesome with another man and a woman, and he will want one with two women, or with younger women. This isn’t to say that any of those desires are wrong, or to suggest that this is even addictive behavior. The mistake isn’t wanting the sex, or having the sex; the mistake is imagining that you’re likely to wake up one day and say, “Rightie-oh, that was ever so much fun, but the album is complete and I am now ready to pivot happily into everlasting monogamy. I’ll certainly never want to try anything again after all I’ve done!” There may be people who work that way, but experience suggests they are few and far between.
Yeats wrote that “the intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work.” What he means by “the work” can mean many things beyond a career or a calling; broadly construed, it means any pursuit that takes you away from connection with others. Wanting to “complete the album” can turn into obsession. You’ll quickly realize that FOMO never fades. Every time I cheated, which for years was a chronic compulsion, I did so with the hope that after this last pretty girl (invariably a student), I’d be done, because I could live sustained by the memory of the longing in her eyes, and not need to slide onto and into new skin ever again. Sadly, it didn’t work that way. One infidelity was too many — and dozens weren’t enough to give me an automatic sense of completion.
The intellect of man is forced to choose, and I had to choose. I had a lot of sex with a lot of different people and still, there were many experiences that eluded me for one reason or another, and at some point, I had to accept I would miss out upon them. FOMO in Finchley will have to choose too. Regardless of what he chooses, there will be a very literal opportunity cost — something will be surrendered. Either the dream of a lifetime of monogamous marriage, or of completing the album will have to go.
Some of my polyamorous friends will say that if this couple opens up their marriage, they might have the best of both worlds — but those who have lived that alternative lifestyle for a while will readily admit that poly is no decision-free paradise. It is not Disneyland; ethical non-monogamy (oh, conservative friends, I heard your eyeroll at what to you is an oxymoron) is not a ecstatic free-for-all. There will always be work. There will always be choices. There will always, always be regret of some sort.
There will always be either “What am I missing out upon?” or “My God, what have I done?”
Not faithful marriage, nor everlasting chastity, nor serial monogamy, nor even the most edgy of alternative lifestyles can provide a prophylaxis against regret.
So, FOMO in Finchley, I won’t judge your choice, but choose you must, and own the choice as yours. Your green field of marital bless makes others ache with envy just as you envy all that they have touched and tasted. It’s missing out either way — but it’s also joy in living into the decision you alone made. In the end, may the rewards of what you do choose carry more weight than the wistfulness of the what-ifs.
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