The website logo, featuring a string of black mountains, capped in snow, with a setting sun behind the range. The title "The Mountains Are Calling" across the bottom.

Nature FOMO

As hard as it is to believe, the era of social media is already 20 years old. Life before (the)Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and MySpace seems a distant past.

Two decades is more than enough to have shown us that the technology is a mixed bag. It has an undeniable allure and allows us to connect with loved ones in ways we could only have dreamed about in previous ages. Of course, the initial promise of this mode of communication could never last. Commercialization and algorithmization created echo chambers and feeds full of things to buy. The social medium allows me to watch rock climbers in exotic locations (great) next to political non-debates (not great) next to an advert for something I probably don’t need (probably not great). One needed to become a curation wizard to squeeze the best of this technology.

It also took an old human attribute and intensified it to problematic levels: the fear of missing out. Humans have feared missing out for as long as humans have existed, but the term is newish. According to scholars, FOMO entered our lexicons circa 2004. Facebook launched in February of that year, so the craze gained attention quickly. That’s a lot of Fs. Our social media sites are fantastic avenues to share our adventures. They are also really good at making us feel like we missed out on someone else’s adventure. Why wasn’t I at that party? How did I miss that concert? I wish I could go on vacation where Ingrid went. What am I doing with my life? These questions add up, and the anxiety they create can be debilitating.

Rare is the immune person. We all experience doubts about our abilities, importance, and experiences. Why wasn’t I out having fun with this group of friends? Am I accomplishing as much as everyone else from my university, high school, or peer group? Do I have as much money as everyone I know? Am I wasting my talents? These types of queries are certainly not new but social media sites ramped up the fury of their effect.

Part of the issue is how hard it is to break the cycle of electronic-borne FOMO. Ditching the phone or computer – or even unplugging briefly – is designed to be difficult or nearly impossible. We expect those in our lives to respond to our texts or calls immediately. Sometimes, our professions demand constant attention and fast response. To step away from FOMO takes a sustained, gargantuan exertion.

Many experts extol the push to take breaks. The JOMO movement – the joy of missing out – might make us happier, say psychologists. The opposite of FOMO, a limitless life, in which one can do whatever one wants at any time, might seem appealing. Svend Brinkmann, Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University, notes that Kierkegaard examined the possibilities of a limitless life and, instead of providing unending happiness, predicted it would lead to despair. To be human is to grapple with the things we cannot accomplish. This inability makes the things we can accomplish all the more glorious. Or so the theory goes. Instead, we should embrace the things we miss, realizing that a limitless life is meaningless. This notion of JOMO, as noted by Brinkmann, requires an extreme amount of work. FOMO can come with a few scrolls of a smartphone.

I can get behind the science of FOMO and JOMO. I certainly noticed an improvement in my own life after I decided to take a step back from social media the better part of a decade ago. I didn’t leave it altogether because I do believe it provides positive utility. I enjoy staying up to date with my family and friends across the globe. But I disengaged in politics and the micro-journalism of life. Toxicity and fear of missing out both decreased but so did the connection to people. It’s a difficult balancing act.

That said, I have been thinking a lot recently about another form of missing out. A FOMO that relates to the natural world. If you’ve followed the newsletter for any length, you know I have labored over a few angsty, internal struggles over the years. I wrote a long piece in the third-anniversary issue about my family’s whirlwind style of exploration. This year, I examined the call of the mountains itself, the question of why some people feel compelled to scale crags. I wrote about how a large portion of my mountaineering mindset was dominated by the mountain I failed to climb as a child. My family set a goal to reach the High Points of all 50 states and to visit all the National Parks. While these issues and practices are, undoubtedly, driven by my love for the natural world, I must admit they are simultaneously driven by my fear of not experiencing the natural world.

This version of FOMO, I believe, is slightly different than the comparative social media iteration. As I age, as my body becomes less capable, I start to think about the things I cannot or will not do. I do not dwell on the places I cannot go because I saw someone else go there. Instead, I worry that I am wasting my only shot at being alive on Earth. Is climbing Everest worth anything tangible? Is visiting Easter Island worth anything tangible? Once we’ve moved past our physical lives, being in a specific location or climbing a mountain won’t matter. I can understand that. Yet, we’re all given an incredible gift to exist in a beautiful world with a beautiful star beaming light and warmth on us, where mountains rise, rivers run, and critters frolic. We’re all physical beings and we get one shot to experience the glory. What can I see and what can I do with my body before it wastes away? This question fills me with the call of the mountains, yes, but it also instills the duality of the fear of missing out.

For me, in my life situation, this idea leads to visiting as many places as possible. Sometimes, friends and family who join us on trips go nuts because of the pace of our exploration. Yet, I never know if I can or will revisit a location, so I want to experience as much as possible. This philosophy, as noted previously, can reap benefits (i.e. seeing a lot of new, interesting things) and cause consternation (i.e. what did we not see? Will we ever have the chance to see that again?)

When it comes to visiting all the states, their High Points, or the National Parks, I can temper the negative half of that equation with the hope of the future. OK, we did not get to Idaho’s Borah Peak on this trip. We can add it to the next itinerary. Barring the apocalypse, mountains will still be there tomorrow, next year, or next decade. Of course, my body might not allow me to climb Denali 20 years from now, so you can’t get too complacent with hope, buddy.

Allaying wanderlust and nature FOMO with the premise of the future works for me sometimes. However, this strategy is not a catch-all. Situations exist in which placing one’s expectations on the future simply does not work.

Take, for instance, the upcoming solar eclipse. We are under two months from a total eclipse in many parts of the United States. I am fortunate enough to live within an hour’s drive of totality, making the opportunity to experience this rarity a distinct possibility. However, unlike Borah Peak, this eclipse will not present itself again the day after. For four minutes – in some spots – a show unlike anything else on the planet will transpire. If you’re not in the path of totality during those specific moments, you’ll miss the show. For someone who derives a lot from the natural world, this reality is a lot of pressure. The next total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous United States won’t take place until 2044. I’d like to believe I will still be around then, but nothing is a guarantee. In 2017, my wife and I were unable to travel to see the last total eclipse in the United States. I was crushed to have to cancel a trip to the American West in 2023 to see the annular – aka “ring of fire” – eclipse. Unless we invent time machines before I perish, these misses become permanent.

Despite my closeness to this year’s event, seeing the total eclipse is not a given. Will rain or cloud cover ruin the festivities? Will I be able to wrangle my family to the proper location without some unseen issue intervening? Will an emergency keep us from the line of totality? Wanting to witness these natural, singular events comes with a large amount of pre-fear of missing out, which will likely pale to the sadness of actually missing them.

Should I happen to miss this eclipse, life will continue to go on. The Earth will continue to spin. In this case, the metaphor of “the sun will rise tomorrow” will sting a little bit extra, but it will still be true.

Is Kierkegaard correct? Is the limitless life meaningless? Perhaps when it comes to achievements, especially in comparison to other humans, he was right. Does the notion hold for once-in-a-lifetime events? Would being able to experience every total eclipse across the globe without difficulty ultimately lead to those experiences being meaningless? For some reason, I doubt that premise. Stories abound of those chasing eclipses time after time, no matter how many times they watch the moon overtake the sun. I wonder if this thirst to experience these uncommon celestial events comes at least in part from the interplay between the constant movement of time and our temporary existences on this plane.

All I can do is order eclipse glasses, pray for a clear day, and put myself in the right spot.  Seizing the day is often an inspirational general mantra. It takes on another level when the day itself is of the utmost importance.

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