Fomo haunted me for years – but the coronavirus pandemic cured me | Nina Burleigh

‘Fear of missing out’ still lurks, but the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how much of our previous lives hung on vanity

Six weeks in. How many more three-hour hikes can we take? How many more of nature’s arrangements of branches, fallen logs, colossal tree trunks, lichens, mosses, babbling brooks and antics of squirrels, can we gaze upon and marvel at?

How far can we take our amateur ornithology before it becomes the kind of obsession that defines the “birder”?

We got a new dog. We are cooking elaborately. I am sewing, patching holes in things. I am writing.

I’m also sleeping 11 hours a night, on average. Wait, what? How did that happen? The woman who hasn’t slept more than five hours straight a night for most of the last decade?

It took me a while to identify the cause: I have finally gotten over my Fomo, acronym for “fear of missing out”. Fomo haunted my nights for years, a rat in the dark at 2am, scratching up for review all the things I did not do to stay ahead of the game during the day.

Now, Fomo, like the handshake, belongs to another age.

I realized this a few days ago, while glancing in the mirror at my gray roots and looking down at my unkempt toenails. How swiftly the true body emerges from the polish and preening. At least I am not alone. No one else – from millionaires to paupers – is getting shined up or going anywhere. I’m not missing any premieres with movie stars or other Manhattan diversions. I am not going to hear about a dinner party to which I alone was not invited. Nobody’s got good hair right now.

The pandemic has exposed how much of our previous lives hung on vanity.

Of course we are still playing the old game. Instagramming gourmet food, candlelit dinner tables (I am a bit guilty of this), pets (guilty also), and sharing the more attractive angles of our Isolation Castles. For city people this means their apartments and brownstones, for us lucky enough to have houses in the country, flowers and fields and trees.

Fomo still lurks. A woman I follow on Instagram is married to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Early in the lockdown, she posted a video of herself in her bathrobe carrying a barista-worthy caffe latte, taking a brisk walk from one end of her California mansion to the other. The video lasted three or four minutes, involved several staircases, football fields of light-filled spaces, glimmers of ultra-modern furniture, breezeways of floor to ceiling glass revealing paradisal gardens. She was perspiring and breathing hard by the end of the video stroll. It was hard work covering all that ground.

Lacking the one-percenter concert-hall-size house, the rest of us have wanly stayed au courant by posting pictures from travels past – selfies from before sheltering in place rendered us gray and flabby, or, as my husband says, before we gained the Covid-19 pounds.

Our governor calls this time a “pause”. New York state is “on pause”. But how hard it is to pause and do nothing! Once trees and lichens and darning socks and cooking fail to divert, a great darkness waits for our attention.

We are being stalked by a virus that attacks our lungs. Practitioners of traditional Chinese acupuncture believe unacknowledged grief sits in the lungs, leaving damage. I’m not going to go all Gwyneth Paltrow, but it does seem reasonable to associate sorrow at least metaphorically with our lungs. Sobbing is, after all, a respiratory action.

I’ve seen it. My mother, an Iraqi immigrant to the United States, developed pneumonia during the early days of the first Gulf war. She sat for 72 hours watching the bombardment on live TV and never cried. Then her back started to hurt. An X-ray found the shadow.

A few weeks ago, I had a bad cough. I didn’t have a fever and it wasn’t a dry cough, so I couldn’t get tested for Covid-19 without a trip to a hospital. On the eighth day of being sick – a sunny afternoon, forsythia in golden profusion all around us, birds chirping – I saw a picture of the mass graves being dug in New York and started sobbing. Almost immediately I felt better.

I, in my great good fortune, sleep well while our medics work without protective gear. Every hour, every minute, right here and nowhere else, is precious, a new luxury. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are dying without loved ones nearby. Machines are lowering coffins into trenches in New York City. The list of possible lamentations is long. We could chant all day and night for months, sob loud enough to echo from New York to the monasteries of Tibet. For the dead, the sick, the koalas burned alive in Australia, the planet combusting with fossil fuel …

I might never know if I had the virus. But for now, I’m cured of Fomo.

  • Nina Burleigh is a journalist and author. She covered the Donald Trump movement for five years as national politics correspondent at Newsweek; her latest book, about the Trump women, will be released updated in paperback this fall

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Nina Burleigh

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