Transcending FOMO

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office
by Michael L. Cooper-White

As a young lad a decade younger than my siblings, I often felt bypassed when the “big kids” engaged in some activity for which I was deemed incapable or inept.  And I recall lying on the floor of my second story bedroom with my ear glued to the air vent that allowed heat from our living room oil burner to ascend to the second floor.  As the adults and big kids carried on late-night conversations down below, I—whose bedtime came hours ahead of theirs—strained  to hear their voices so that that I too would be “in the loop” on the latest gossip.

A few weeks ago, I came across an acronym, apparently widely known, that describes my childhood condition, which I will confess has never been fully outgrown: FOMO.  I was first introduced to the term in an article published in autumn by Yale Divinity School’s “Reflections” journal.  The entire Fall 2011 issue of YDS’ fine publication was devoted to the topic of “Facing the New Media Explosion.”  The Rev. Dr. Wes Avran, a former Yale professor of communication who now pastors a Presbyterian church in Arizona, reflects theologically on the widespread phenomenon that drives us to be incessantly checking our email inboxes, text messages, blogs, tweets, voice mail and all other sources of information and communication.  FOMO simply stands for “fear of missing out.”  Our culture has created expectations of not only immediate gratification, but of instant communication of all manner of data, much of which is at best only of remote interest or relevance for our lives. 

Being “in the know” is so highly valued that it often leads to distraction and outright rudeness.  While many would hesitate to rustle a newspaper and hide behind it midstream in a lively conversation, we increasingly think nothing of whipping out our i-phones or gazing at laptop computer screens in the midst of a meeting or conversation.  Some are so addicted to their information-gathering-and-sending devices that they text or receive and issue emails while operating dangerous equipment or speeding down the freeway at 70 miles per hour.  So prevalent and perilous have such practices become that many states have enacted laws to enforce safety measures that ought to be obvious and require no legislation. 

Avran’s article raises some pressing and profound questions about the impact of giving way to FOMO.  Fear of any nature, of course, may drive us to abandon worthy plans, comprise core values, or hesitate to do the right, good and godly thing.  While horizons expanded by the ability to communicate with global companions of different cultures, races and religions might enhance and expand our embrace of God’s grand and diverse creation, FOMO, suggests Avran, can also work against cultivating lives imbued with a deep spirituality.  Provocatively, he asks, “Hasn’t the religious vision of spiritual maturity always staked at least part of its claim on the value of ‘missing out’?  Hasn’t it cherished the experience of deep exploration, of closing off options, focusing attention, and accepting limits?  Hasn’t spiritual wisdom demanded patience, forgiveness, a grace that is shaped (not data banked) by memory?  And haven’t the disciplines of restraint, choice, concentration, humility, and focus been essential to the work of prayer?”

Let me hasten to state forthrightly that I’m not about to give up my laptop or Droid, which keep me connected not only to coworkers, colleagues and my many work projects, but also to far-flung friends and family members.  Those who know my work style will attest that I’m probably among the “first responders” when it comes to keeping up with my email messages and text traffic.  But as the years have gone by, I’m a little less anxious when others hear news or learn things before I do.  If the spiritual life means, as many have suggested, “letting go and letting God,” I can accept my limitations and recognize the humbling reality that I can only know a tiny fraction of all that’s occurring every moment of each day.  The more complex projects and tasks become, the more I can and must trust coworkers to tend to many things about which I am ignorant, incompetent or often both.  Inasmuch as I frankly am not all that interested in so much daily life detail that appears in FACEBOOK postings, I will spare others up-to-the-minute fascinating facts like what I had for breakfast or my opinion on almost every subject.

One of the most treasured aspects of the Gospels for me is their minimalism, especially when it comes to details from Jesus’ biography.  While we know precious little about his daily life, especially during his first three decades, we find all we need to know in the bare essentials provided.  Among those scarce bits of biographical information we are given is the reality that our Lord frequently unplugged and headed off into the hills to pray.  I suppose he was driven by a particular and peculiar form of FOMO.  From his adolescent sojourn in the temple, when he stayed behind among the elders after his parents and their party had headed homeward, to his final night when he prayed fervently in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus feared missing out on God’s desires and design for his mission.

Our challenge in these matters, it seems to me,  is to strike a balance.  To be sure, as gospelers who would speak good news in our current context, we must stay connected, remaining aware of what’s happening both locally and in the great global village.  At the same time, if our incarnational theology convinces us that we see the face of Jesus in the faces of those who surround us, there’s a time to power down the computer, set the cell phone aside, and engage in sweet and soul-filling human communion and life together. 

If you’ve pondered these matters and have found a balance that works well for you, I’d be interested in receiving a text, email or even hand-written note from you.  Don’t expect an immediate response, however, for one of my 2012 New Year’s resolutions is to be a bit less compulsive at the computer.  In the face of information overload, you see, I’m working hard at transcending my own unholy FOMO!
Posted: 1/16/2012 8:33:08 PM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office

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