The Ones That Got Away

by Erin Nelson- February 13, 2015 • 1:42 pm

Maybe “FOMO” (fear of missing out) isn’t a result of the smartphone era, after all. Could it simply be part of being human?


I had a barefoot childhood. The kind spent traipsing the gravel alleys that divided our blocks and dead-ended in train tracks, adults perhaps in earshot, but definitely not in sight. Our life was modest, paycheck-to-paycheck. I’d always known I wouldn’t get everything I wanted—and on occasion even grasped that it wouldn’t be good for me if I did. But not until one humid, still summer evening when I was about 5 did I realize that when it came to what I could have, I’d sometimes have to decide.

Through some circumstances lost to me now, about a dozen bales of hay had wound up in our grassy backyard, and all the neighborhood kids were at my house, a rare occurrence. We stacked and knocked them down, climbed them, grabbed handfuls of the sweet, spiky stalks and scattered them in nests, in the air, in each other’s hair. Then my parents appeared on the back porch, beckoned me over, mysteriously. Would I like to keep playing, or go off to do something fun with my mom? They wouldn’t say what. Whatever it was, by the time we returned, it’d be too dark to play. And if I kept playing, I’d miss whatever the fun thing was. I chose to stay put.

A couple weeks later, I piled with the neighbor kids into the way-back of their parents’ faux-wood-paneled station wagon, to see Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in the theater. Before I left, my mom said that’s what she’d planned to take me to the night of the hay bales. As I sat before the flickering screen, eating the enormous Hershey bar my mother never would have bought me, I wished to have that moment back. To choose differently. I felt tears coming. I felt a little lost. And yet, I’d had a wonderful night in the dampening grass, a night I can still smell.

A decade later, in high school, I would learn that the word “decide” comes from the Latin for “to cut,” related to the Latin for “to kill.” And I remembered the clutching I’d felt in my chest that afternoon in the theater. An intensity I hadn’t understood at the time.

Fifteen years after that, I’d be wondering aloud in counseling why, when I clearly adored my fiancé and knew I wanted him to become my family, I was feeling sad in the weeks preceding our wedding. “I want to be with him, I’m ready to get married, so it’s not like I’m giving anything up,” I said. I’d never heard my therapist laugh so hard. “What are you talking about? You’re giving up the possibility of you-don’t-know-what with who-knows-how-many-other men you might possibly meet! This doesn’t mean you don’t want to marry him, or shouldn’t. It just means that nothing comes for free. Nothing. For everything you choose, you give up something else.”

Fast-forward four years, and I’m gloriously, excitedly eight months pregnant with our daughter. And I’m gasping, gulping, choking crying in our kitchen, so overcome with grief and loss that I can barely get out the words, “I want this baby, but once she’s here, it’ll never again be just us again. Our family of two will be gone.”

And two weeks ago, I read the commencement speech Shonda Rimes (TV writer, director and producer, and mother of three children) gave at Dartmouth last spring. In which she said:

“I constantly get asked the question ‘How do you do it all?’ For once I am going to answer that question with 100 percent honesty. … Because somebody has to tell you the truth.

“The answer is this: I don’t.

“If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff.

“Something is always missing.”

Now, Shonda Rimes was specifically addressing what life is like when you have a career and children. But her words are just as relevant for someone with a career and no children. Or children and no career. Or, frankly, for anyone who’s alive.

So why, every time I confront this truth, that something is always “missing” (likely at least 100 times more than the 5 incidences I’ve related above), do I feel again as if I’m swallowing it for the very first time?

Perhaps because it is the truth. We are born, we live for an unpredictable length of time, and we die. And we cannot, no matter how we try, do, have, or experience everything. Not even close.

This is what it is to be human. And balking at this limit is also human. Which is why we’ve searched high and low for the Holy Grail. The Fountain of Youth. Life everlasting.

And it’s why, I’m convinced, that we’re so utterly, completely, head-over-heels, sick-in-the-stomach, fidgety in love with smartphones. Because they give us the illusion of being able to do it all. I can text with my sister and catch up while I drive! I can check work emails while I put the kids to bed! I can read every article that’s ever looked remotely interesting—heck, I can read every article ever written in the history of forever because now it’s online—by opening each one in a new browser tab! I can keep up with everyone I’ve ever wanted to be friends with and remember their birthdays, to boot! I CAN GO TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!

Except we can’t. We’ve all read the studies and essays and books about how our divided attention wrecks our ability to complete tasks. How our focus on fodder for our social media profiles robs us of time for quiet contemplation—and turns us into fibbers. How our susceptibility to the siren song of never having to sacrifice anything leaves us feeling as if we are present for nothing.

We have more ways to connect, more people to connect with, and more potential objects of interest, but with no more hours in the day. For every hour we use one way, we’re not using it in another. And we hate this.

February 14th may seem an odd day to bring up this pretty unromantic idea, but it feels to me like the perfect time. To face the wonderful burden and awful freedom of being able to make decisions. Which is to say: to be truly human.

The moments we have, the experiences we create, and the people we love will always, always number far less than the ones that got away. This is simply a law of the universe, and not a sign that we’re messing up. The more we accept that our “fear of missing out” is simply another fear to live with, and that trying to protect ourselves from it only gives it an undeserved power over us, the more available we are to living. And loving. And I’d like to think St. Valentine would be behind that with all his heart.

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