Worldliness and Anxiety

Worldliness and Anxiety May 21, 2013

Walking across Dartmouth’s campus recently I overheard one student say to another: “Hey – you should come to Gammapalooza at Chi Gam tonight, everyone’ll be there…” and then somewhat compassionately added, “but don’t worry if you can’t…. no FOMO!” If you don’t know what this acronym stands for, I’m sorry to say, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most useful acronyms to be added to the online urban dictionary in the last five years. FOMO = “fear of missing out”. With these four letters the animating spirit behind the bewilderingly frantic pace of college life (and our society at large) has been given a name. We’ve talked about this phenomenon on the blog before but I wanted to give a slightly different take on it.

It can be tempting to blame the “information age” or “globalization” or “the media explosion” for our societal schizophrenia. We think that because we now have access to so much information and entertainment and opportunity that we are plagued with FOMO. We think that earlier generations had it easier. But to think this way is to be ignorant of history.

In 1681 Oxford University Chancellor and renowned theologian John Owen wrote the following: “The world is at present in a mighty hurry, and being in many places cut off from all foundations of steadfastness, it makes the minds of men giddy with its revolutions, or disorderly in the expectations of them…”

“Giddy with its revolutions” and “disorderly in the expectations of them”? This observation from over 330 years ago could describe our mindset today; it sounds like FOMO. Why all the hurry? Owen gives this explanation: “Men walk and talk as if the world were all, when comparatively it is nothing.

What Owen is suggesting is that FOMO is a symptom of the ancient biblical notion known as worldiness. When we believe that this world is all there is we instinctively valorize the fleeting over the eternal. We create cultural forms that embody these priorities and then we cannot help but feel like we are constantly missing out. Having no deeper realities to hold onto, we are left drifting from one momentary pleasure to the next in a world of passing beauty.

If worldliness is the cause of our collective FOMO, then the prescription for sanity in our hurried society is not to speed up or slow down, per se, but to comprehend the eternal beauty of God and let this affection produce freedom from fear.

It reminds me vaguely of this C.S. Lewis quote: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

This passage of Scripture from Jeremiah gives us wise counsel, pointing us forward by pointing us back: “Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer 6:16)

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