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In Praise of "Missing Out"

A Personal Perspective: How trying to do it all leads to experiencing less.

Key points

  • Trying to fit too much in takes away life's breathing room.
  • The fear of missing out can push us to cram our calender full.
  • There is a sea of possibilities, but all we really need is to ride one wave well.

I am standing in front of my bathroom mirror coating my face with a messy combination of moisturizer and dry bronzing powder in lieu of my normal easy-to-use foundation which I can’t seem to locate. The substitution is not going well. My skin is a blotchy uneven mess of color and texture and shininess. As I reach for a wash cloth to erase the damage, I think “God, I wish we didn’t have to go out tonight. What was I thinking?”

My husband Jim and I are about to drive an hour in rush hour traffic to Santa Monica to meet a couple who sat at our table at a friend’s wedding nine months ago.

“Call us when you’re in Los Angeles,” I had said when we said goodbye to Barry and Nancy in the parking lot in front of the wedding tent. And I meant it at the time. I really did. Both Jim and I had felt a connection to Barry and Nancy from Nebraska and they seemed to like us as well. During the reception, at our table under the sparkly-lit canopy, Jim and I sang Barry and Nancy the song we sing when we put the e-collar cone on our dog’s head: “Is it crown of glory or a cone of shame? Does it make me look regal or just super lame?” Our song was a big hit with Barry and Nancy and the four of us sang it together under the sparkly lights and laughed and laughed as sparkling wine was poured and poured.

Maggie Rowe
Crown of Glory/Cone of Shame
Source: Maggie Rowe

But then last week, nine months after the wedding, “Who?” I had asked when Jim had told me Barry and Nancy were in town.

“The couple from my Pam and Joe’s wedding.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.”

“They have tickets to a jazz concert in Santa Monica and want to know if we want to join them.”

“Oh… uh… what do you think?”

“Up to you.”

“Well…I don’t know… I guess, let’s do it.”

But now as I stand here leaning over the sink, trying to even out my skin tone with a damp wash cloth, I wish I could take my “let’s do it” back. Then we could just stay here, away from the traffic, away from the people and the parking lots, away from the small talk and forced interest. But we made a commitment and so begrudgingly I pull out the mascara and attempt to paint some life into my eyes.

As I’m coating my lashes, Jim sticks his head in, a big smile on his face, sunbeams practically streaming from his eyes: “Guess what?”


“They can’t make it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Barry and Nancy.”

I drop the mascara wand on the vanity and turn towards him. “No… really? Are you screwing with me?”

“No, I’m serious they cancelled. Sick kid.”

“Whoohoo!” I exult, bouncing and flopping my feet in a happy Snoopy dance, before abruptly stopping myself, “I mean I’m sorry their kid is sick but…”

“Sure, you are. Nobody wishes sickness on a kid.”

We have a moment of silence before I resume my Snoopy dance, “Whoohooo!”

Jeffrey Czum/Pexels
Source: Jeffrey Czum/Pexels

I am experiencing what I call “cancel-elation,” the euphoria one feels when a planned event is cancelled, a sensation which is especially acute when the cancellation is of the last-minute variety. I am experiencing a particularly delightful sense of cancel-elation right now. This is not unusual. In fact, virtually every time an event is cancelled, I experience at least a little cancel-elation.

Scheduling More Than We Actually Want to Do

So why do I keep scheduling dates I almost never want to keep when they actually arrive?

I’ve been thinking about it and I suspect it’s because I am afraid of missing out. I see all these ways to spend my time and I don’t want to miss any of them. I told Barry and Nancy to call when they were in town because letting go of a couple of kindred spirits forever felt like missing out. And I’ve always wanted to develop an appreciation for jazz. People that appreciate jazz seem to groove on life and I want to be like them. I don’t want to miss out on the secret those cool syncopated hipsters seem to have stumbled upon.

The Unexpected Relief of Plans Falling Through

But at this moment, as I finish washing my face and remove my contact lenses, I am awash in relief, the same kind of relief I felt for the first few days into Covid quarantine. Although scared of the virus and how it could impact the world, I also felt a cascading sense of ease over that first week as obligations fell away, as time spooled out in front of me and all around me. There was time to take a breath. Time to organize my mess. There was time to dawdle and dither, time to linger and loaf and lollygag, time to watch silly TV and books that didn’t deliver, time to bake bread and watch it rise, then eat it whenever.

For a time into lockdown, I didn’t worry about missing out because there was so little to miss; the whole world was shut down. But as it began to open up, so did my concern that I was missing out, that there were things to do that I was not doing, places to be I wasn’t going.

And now once again I live in fear I’m not going to see all the grand sights, hear all the grand sounds. And of course… I won’t. I’ll never be able to do it all. The scary truth at the bottom of the fear, the truth I don’t want to face, is that I am finite. I am bound by my human temporal condition to miss out on infinitely more than I will ever actually do. Author Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Sometimes I hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” I know what he’s talking about. I hear that strain. I see so many possibilities, a sea of possibilities, and want to believe that I have time for everything in that whole sea but the truth is I absolutely don’t.

And that is sad. Very sad.

But… the sooner I can accept the sadness of that limitation, the sooner I can let go of the strain of trying to do it all, the sooner I can stop extending and accepting invitations based on a fear of missing out, and the sooner I can begin to enjoy a life with breathing room. Like tonight, a night with a lot of breath, a night I do not have to drive to Santa Monica to listen to music I have not yet learned to fully appreciate, a night with my husband and my dogs and my books, a free and wonderful night to follow my whim and do a whole lot of whatever and whatnot; warm and cozy with a soft cushion of time.

As my dog wanders into our bedroom wearing his cone, I hear Jim sing: “Is it crown of glory or a cone of shame?” I smile.

In the sea of possibilities, tonight I am content to ride this one wave.