There’s always a party that you’re missing out on.
You know the party that I’m talking about. You’re sitting on the couch, planning to kick back with a plate of mint-flavored Milanos and watch all three hours and 21 minutes of “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Laptop propped by your side, you quickly scan through your Facebook newsfeed only to discover that someone has posted a photo of a party they’re hosting in their suite.
One glance at the photo, and you can tell it’s the party of the century. You can envisage it clearly: They’re playing the perfect combination of music you like (indulgent pop, some jazz, Kendrick’s best tracks), somebody has strung up multi-colored Christmas lights, and everyone is at a perfect level of content, conversation-inducing, pink-cheeked tipsiness.
All those people that you’ve ever wanted to meet and get to know — the kid in your freshman seminar, that cool junior you met in the line at Blue State, that friend who happens to also be into botany and DC comics, your future spouse — they’re all there, at the party. The party you’re missing out on.
Despite the underlying understanding that nothing will satisfy you more than watching Aragorn and Legolas pal up with the Army of the Dead and crush Sauron’s forces, all you can think of is The Party, the Fireball and plastic cups of Popov’s that you didn’t consume, the Kendrick you didn’t bop around to, the potential spouse that you failed to meet.
You think of those Christmas lights, twinkling pixels of diamond and ruby and amethyst, taunting you from the photo on your newsfeed. You are restless and anxious; you feel like you have a phantom limb with this itch that you just can’t scratch.
This malaise is called The Fear Of Missing Out, a source of anxiety that has become so ubiquitous, thanks to the likes of Facebook and Instagram, that it has been bequeathed its own acronym: FOMO. The Facebook newsfeed, a treasure trove of parties unattended, of friends unmade, of roads not taken, exacerbates its symptoms.
One quick scroll-through, and you’ll find that in the hour you’ve been waiting to collect your package from the post office, somebody went jet-skiing in Bora Bora, and someone else finished writing a screenplay. While you scarfed down a P&B sandwich for lunch, someone else dined on authentic Moroccan couscous. When you did five crunches at the gym, somebody else finished a half-marathon in the desert of Inner Mongolia.
What makes things worse is that these people are not celebrities or moguls or millionaires, but people you know, friends and acquaintances. And if they could do it, you could accomplish the same. Opportunities dangle like tropical fruit, overripe and waiting to be plucked.
And so you fill your basket, pack your schedule with poetry readings at the Beinecke and intramural soccer games and dates and Free Jazz concerts and tailgates in the hope that there is a never a party missed out on. You are in a constant state of insatiability, of restlessness — a Jay Gatsby on steroids.
Instead of strolling down to the beach every other evening to check out the green light by Daisy’s dock, you find yourself constantly gazing at the world through a viridian lens of longing and endless possibility. Free meal at Geronimo’s with the Liberal Party, mixer with the ski team, master’s tea with Egyptian civil society expert, lunch with the kid who sits next to you in Econ section. The green light shines 24/7.
* * *
If anywhere remains shielded from the green glow, it’s Deep Springs College, where 26 students live on a ranch in the empty desert near the California-Nevada border. Unlike Yale, where one is surrounded by the constant thrum of college life, there is nothing there to distract and entice but scrub, sand, rock and a horizon of mountain ridges and ice-capped peaks. There are no human inhabitants for 100,000 acres, and unless they are on official school business, students may not go into the nearest town.
Lucas, a Deep Springer, wakes up after six, just as the farm team disperses across the 11 fields to move irrigation lines. Over the White Mountains, the sun rises; its rays catch the gleaming alfalfa and the back of his coat as he bikes towards breakfast. A scoop of homemade yogurt, then three hours of class — the first has ten students, the second, three.
After class, he gets the baler and makes his way down to Field 4. Deep Springs runs on student labor, and students rotate through jobs ranging from “general labor” (digging ditches, repairing fences, fixing vehicles) to “student cowboy” (keeping an eye out for calving heifers from the late afternoon until sunrise each night). Today, Lucas is in charge of the tractor.
In the afternoon, he decides to curl up by the fire to read and write. Later, as the sun sits on the ridges over the West, he takes a slow stroll down to the corrals before setting off to the field for half an hour of soccer.
After dinner, Deep Springs’s weekly Student Body meeting is called to order; all 26 students convene to share their thoughts on the day, elect a treasurer, evaluate a professor and discuss proposals to build a new cowboy house and to ban certain technologies.
At midnight, Lucas sinks into the couch with his books, and when his eyelids begin to droop, he stumbles across the corridor into his hammock and falls into a deep, dreamless slumber.
If you find something incredibly appealing about Lucas’s lifestyle, you are not alone. We have long sought to temper the chaos of modern life with natural quiet and solitude — just as Thoreau retreated to his cabin at Walden Pond and Coleridge “reared in the great city, pent ’mid cloisters dim,” yearned for the tranquility of a frosty midnight, we too want to carve out a refuge from today’s hectic and hyper-connected world.
Think of Lucas, as he shifts gears in his tractor, walks to class and cooks omelets for dinner. Is FOMO even part of his vocabulary? I assumed that the longing to be everywhere, to see everything, to meet everyone, was muted and tamed by the barrenness of the landscape. I wanted to know what that felt like.
I decided to email another Deep Springer, a high school friend who chose two years in the Valley over big names like Stanford and Brown, with my qualms about the endless hubbub of college life.
His response, a week later, surprised me. His experiences bore less of a resemblance to Leo’s than to my own freshman fall.
“Here, as at Yale, there is also never time,” he wrote. In addition to academics, governance (he’s reading faculty job applications) and labor (gardening), he’s been playing an hour of piano a day, joined a Zarathustra reading group and recently tried to make a Chinese milk/egg pudding for Sunday dinner.
“In my eagerness to do things last term,” he told me, “I ended up living like a machine – going from task to task endlessly on a treadmill.”
He also wants to fix pianos, go climbing and read more outside of class, but he never has time. And he feels like he’s missing out on “Big College Opportunities”: He wants to learn French, math and analytic philosophy, classes not offered in the Valley. Simply going up to the mountains or down to the sea, it appears, does not cure us of these anxieties. “I’m too fucking busy doing all kinds of shit to properly hear the voice of the desert,” he said.
So it seems that we aren’t seeking refuge or isolation, but instead this elusive voice — a sense of reassurance, of guidance.
It’s not jealousy that lies at the root of FOMO, but confusion. We suffer from FOMO not because we really want to do a half-marathon in inner Mongolia but because we realize that somebody else has made a choice different from our own. Deep Springs, rather than an isolated haven, is simply another path that I chose not to take. And my anxiety stems not from having too many options, but from fear of choosing the wrong one, an anxiety inherent in any decision.
What we’re looking for is clarity. But thanks to Facebook, we’ve been thrust into a massive, swirling, chaotic galaxy of infinite alternatives; we are pulled back and forth by an anarchic tangle of status updates and parties that we could have attended. But social media has only exacerbated insecurities that have always existed. The questions driving what we call FOMO predate the acronym: Have I made the right decisions? How do I want to live my life?
And so we move from party to party, from East Egg to West Egg, from city to valley, from the suburbs to the mountains to the woods to the lakes, with these questions always on our minds. There are, no doubt, ways to learn restraint and humility, to gain focus and satisfaction, to find answers. But they won’t be written in the landscape.