What to do with FOMO?


Throughout college and in the post-college years many people have told me to “try something new,” “take risks,” and “don’t leave any regrets.” The “good life” is pitched as hopping from job to job, traveling from country to country, in a who-knows-how-long Wanderjahr. The globalized world is our oyster.

I have recently read A Journey Worth Taking, a book on meaning and calling by Pastor Charles Drew. The book showed me that behind the wanderlust-talk is a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out). If I pursue one track, I might close myself off to another and be bound by the consequences of my decisions forever. Trade-offs are scary. Can’t it be “both / and”? Can’t we always have it all?

Hardly anyone talks about risk-taking in terms of staying-put, of being fully present and committed to limits: a place, a community, or line of work. Staying-put might be the greatest, most courageous risk of all, if one wanted to use risk as one’s criterion for decision-making. Of course, the question is: what are the right criteria?

For Christians, we don’t have to worry about adopting the bird’s eye-view from which we can weigh all the options and their possible implications; that perspective is God’s. He will make the necessary calculations, weaving all the little threads of our lives into the grand tapestry. We just need to heed his call. The right criterion is simply whether or not he has called us to it.

But the task of listening sensitively to God’s call can still be fairly stressful, especially if he is not saying much. Life would be much easier if Jesus just showed up and told us what to do with our lives, as he did to Simon, James and John, asking them to follow him and become “fishers of men.”

We forget that before that grand call, Jesus had issued another, simpler call to Simon: “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” It is a bit of a ludicrous command, as Simon’s protest makes clear: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” But he obeys and somehow catches enough fish to fill two boats. It is a miracle that attests to Jesus’ divinity and brings Simon to his knees, exclaiming, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

It was a bad night of fishing for Simon. He could have been wringing his hands on whether he should remain in the fishing industry and anxiously wondering what he might be missing out on in other professions. But through his faithful obedience to what was directly before him, he was led to the Caller, and from that, to his new calling. Perhaps the answer to the question, “What has God called me to?” might surface if we tacked on “right here and now” at the end of the question, and then obeyed.

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  • How is tacking “here and now” to the end of your question going to help anyone discern God’s will in their life when “he is not saying much”?

  • Peter Blair

    I think what Sarah’s trying to get at is the role that discernement of current objective factors in your life can play in helping you discover whatever bigger calls you may have. It’s the “daily yes,” faithfulness in the small things and to the tasks before you, that can help you figure out “what you’re supposed to do with your life.”

  • It’s a nice thought, Peter, but a cheap answer to the question Sarah is raising. If someone is actually having difficulties making a significant life choice, adopting a quietist attitude and being “faithful in small things” isn’t going to do do much for them. This is a kind of “cheap piety” that pretends simplicity and serenity are enough to rebuff actual difficulties. They’re not, though. If two very different roads are opening up before you in the woods, pausing to appreciate the beauty of the flowers and trees or sniff the lucious Autumn wind isn’t going to get you anywhere. You’ve got to know where you want to end up.

    I’m sure Sarah is making a good point here, though I’m not entirely sure what it is, but if her point is the one you’re making, then something more needs to be said about prudence, instead of waving off the problem with this vague piety.

    • sarah ngu

      Eliot, if you want a systematic treatment of calling and how to make life-decisions, then of course this post won’t suffice. It’s just one crack at a large issue, done through a short analysis of this passage in Luke, that hopefully offers a bit of help for some situations, but obviously not for all situations. I was addressing more those who have no real clue what direction to go in, rather than those who are deciding between a few significant paths. It’s sometimes more helpful to look at where the next concrete step is (where God is leading you in that), instead of trying to always take the big-picture and deduce one’s decision from that vantage point.

    • It’s not exactly that I’m demanding a systematic treatment of the problem. Sure, it would be nice to have a one, but that’s not necessary, especially in a blog post. The problem is more that you’re raising a question, or even a series of questions, as if promising to say something about them, but you don’t. It’s all so vague: We don’t want to miss out; we have a general fear of commitment; God’s will matters; God’s will is difficult to discern; Peter cast out into the deep when it seemed stupid to do so; we should ask what God’s will is here and now.

      How does St. Peter help with this? Doesn’t he even make your problem more difficult? What Christ told him to do was contrary to natural prudence. So should we also act contrary to natural prudence? Or not? What exactly are you telling us to do? How does this relate to the problem of discerning God’s will? What does it even mean, practically speaking, to discern God’s will? How does this relate to fear of commitment and the desire not to miss out? Does this mean that I should abandon my dream of doing Anthropological research in Madagascar and just keep re-stocking grocery aisles? Does it mean that I should expect a vision while I’m stacking soup cans? Or that I should just stop desiring anything and go with the flow, because it’s all about the small things? When will my awakening happen?

      I think what I’m struggling with here is the profusion of different problems raised in such a small space without any clear answer or useful guidance given in relation to them. And, as someone about to finish graduate school and trying to find a job, they’re very real problems to me. Fortunately I’ve got other resources to turn to in solving these, but if I didn’t, I would be very frustrated by the apparent vacuity of your solution. Which means that I am frustrated anyway, not on my own account, but just because you’re presenting shallow truisms to readers as if they’re helpful insights.

      • sarah ngu

        Well, it sounds like you have big questions to work through and I’m glad you have other resources to turn towards. Madagascar sounds cool.

        Let me try to summarize as succinctly as I can what I am trying to say, so that you know what I am not trying to say/claim/attempt-to-solve: FOMO is a thing, and part of what fuels it is this attempt to take the bird’s eye perspective, weigh all the options, and select the best one. The worry we have is that we do not have all the right information to make the best decision — in other words, we’re not omniscient. Well thankfully that’s not part of our job description (to be omniscient), it’s God’s, so we just have to take heed Him. How does He speak? Well, that’s a big question, but what I’m trying to do is to WIDEN our listening range, so that we’re not just listening for Grand Calls, but also to little, mundane calls about what concrete step to take next, because in those little calls, there might be something really awaiting us. I’m not laying out a concrete path to hear how God speaks, but I am saying, Look there might be other ways that he is speaking which seem too mundane for our visionary-eyes, and so let’s pay some attention there. Think of God whispering to Elijah after the storm, fire and earthquake. The paralysis of FOMO sometimes stems from trying to take in the whole grand landscape of options, when he might be speaking to us from the ordinary, right-here-right-now details of our lives.

        • Thank you, that’s way clearer. So basically FOMO = anxiety/Angst/agonia. And what you’re describing is a crisis of choice. And your proposed solution is to focus on the ordinary details of our lives. Fair enough. That might work, though it doesn’t really get at the core of your FOMO. And I still don’t see how Peter fits into this.

          Maybe my failure to understand is a reflection that I belong in Madagascar. Could this be that whisper in the breeze?

    • Peter Blair

      Sorry, prudence was what I was trying to point to. It’s not just visions and hearing God’s voice, but objective discernment. What can I afford to do? What skills do I have? Will this help me meet my obligations? Will it make me a better Christian or is it the kind of job that would make my vices worse? etc. I think that’s also what Sarah is saying.

  • I think you’re right to point out that staying-put can be an act of courage. Trying to put yourself out there for everything actually causes you to lose out on a lasting commitment to a single community. We try to pretend that we can have it all, but because we are finite beings, we will all experience tradeoffs. (Reminds me of two posts by Richard Beck: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/02/being-enough-shame-and-cultures-of.html and http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/02/good-enough.html)

    Of course, most of the time FOMO is associated with too much wanderlust, too much of a desire to be out there. It’s interesting because I suspect there may have been a different sort of FOMO an age ago; a fear of missing out on the goings-on of local community and family that kept people put. (Or perhaps just a sense of duty.) But that’s I think what I fear missing out the most: missing out on the opportunity to help those in my immediate vicinity because I was too consumed by those beyond it.