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The Joy of Missing Out

Personal Perspective: There's nothing better than a well timed cancellation.

Key points

  • The joy of missing out, JOMO, is more common than we think.
  • Saying no without apology or explanation is a great relief.
  • We say yes when we mean no, and wonder why I we feel so tired.
  • It is sweet to do nothing but increasingly rare.

I was on a bus near Siena recently, speaking to a bright-eyed psychiatrist from Marin County who writes poetry and is beloved by his patients.

“I love a well-timed cancellation,” he told me with a guilty grin. Sixteenth-century architecture streamed behind his head through the window. “People talk about the fear of missing out. It’s just the opposite for me. I’ve got JOMO.”

“Sorry?”

“The joy of missing out.”

I understood exactly what he meant. I've felt a gnawing desire for a while now to empty my schedule, clear the decks, tune in and drop out. Dolce far niente, the Italians remind us. It is sweet to do nothing. Being idle, absent, commitment-free, with nowhere to go and no one to see, is one of life's greatest luxuries. I cherish my deliberately structured life, which, at 66, I've winnowed down (mostly) to what genuinely matters to me, what I truly enjoy. Still, I'm often more plugged in and on-task than I'd care to be -- if I were the king of the universe -- and far busier than I might intend.

Being over-responsible is part of the problem. Over-responsibility and JOMO go hand in hand, I'm learning, and issue from an exaggerated sense of how important we actually are. I'm not alone in believing that I matter far more than I truly do in the lives and affairs of those around me. A majority of us are fairly delusional in assessing how indispensable we actually are, and how earth shattering our absence would really be (not!) in the event that we finally learned to say no.

In fact, we hold ourselves to ridiculous standards of availability and reliability in the name of being considered good people. Craving love and acceptance, we frequently say yes when no would be more honest, and wonder why we feel inauthentic. Over-responsibility stems in large part from neediness, of course, wanting to believe we're irreplaceable, necessary, critical to the morale and well-being of those in our orbit.

But this is a self-serving fiction, nothing more. In truth, we could simply be more honest. We might reply, like Melville’s Bartleby, “I would prefer not to” when confronted something we'd rather not do. We might have learned to say no without feeling the need to explain, justify, or apologize. In his beautiful new book, The Eloquence of Silence, Thomas Moore talks about kenosis, the Greek philosophical concept of emptying, clearing, or creating new space. “In a state of kenosis, you don’t need to plan and control everything," Moore writes, "but you allow constant change and transformation. You can empty yourself of your plans and agendas and in that way be open to the … design that life itself has for you.”

Instead, we say yes to avoid the challenge of deciding what is actually true. This lazy approach to plan-making can become asphyxiating, as our calendars fill up with obligations that are mostly unnecessary and often worse.

This raises a complicated, soul-baring question; namely, how much do I really want to drop out? After all, aliveness is connected to engagement, and an engaged life is bound to have complications. Such a life is bound to have a social dimension, and interactions with other people are bound to be problematic, demanding, and distracting (also, inconvenient at times). Even as the overworked, overbooked guy inside me yearns to tune out the encroaching world, the curious, receptive, interested individual continues to move toward engagement (and busyness), in the knowledge that isolation is far worse.

When the bus stopped at the Porta San Marco, my friend grabbed his backpack and smiled. "JOMO," he mouthed silently, like a resistance fighter to secret comrade.

I saluted back and turned on my phone, disappointed to find no new messages. There is nothing like a well-timed cancellation. But that doesn't mean I don't want to be asked.

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