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Photos and FoMo

The term “FoMo” has only been around for a few years to the best of my knowledge, and if you’ve avoided hearing it for this long, a) welcome back to society, and b) it means “Fear Of Missing Out,” a feeling you must not have experienced being so out of touch for so long. I kind of hate the word “FoMo,” but it’s a valid phenomenon and I’m far too lazy to type the whole thing out every time, so buckle up. It is not to be confused with “MoFo” which means something else entirely.

I like to lie to myself and pretend that I’m not particularly prone to FoMo as I often try to actively avoid big trends and have never been keen on large social gatherings (the pandemic lockdown was not particularly challenging for me, and I only did the sourdough thing because I already had a sourdough starter and the whipped coffee thing because it was the recipe I’d been looking for since 2009 when I had whipped coffee – frappe – in Greece). But I’m still human, and still a social creature, even if in a more limited way than some. Despite my denial, I’ve apparently been suffering from FoMo since I was an infant, according to my mom who attests that she had to hold my head down when trying to rock me to sleep lest I pop back up to see what was going on without me (that sounds meaner than it really was; don’t worry, if I have any lingering effects from this, it’s maybe strong neck muscles?).

There’s a bigger form of FoMo, though, that doesn’t seem to get enough recognition. It’s one of those feelings that probably has a specific name in German or Swedish but no direct English translation. You know, like the particular ennui that comes when you realize the wool in your socks came from a specific sheep who has its own existence outside of your consciousness. I’m sure the Germans or the Swedes have a word for that. Except I’m not talking about wool ennui. Honestly it’s a bit off topic. I never should have mentioned it. What I really want to talk about is that fear of missing out on things that you know, regardless of any effort, you can never experience. It’s a less frenetic, more wistful form of FoMo than the traditional “Oh no, everybody is having fun without me!” variety. It’s felt in moments when you realize even if you devoted all your time to reading, there are books you’ll never get read, or even with determined study, nuances in other languages that you will never fully grasp, even with proficient fluency.

Sometimes this bigger FoMo hits when I watch really good science fiction, and I realize that while humanity is scheduled to reach Mars within my lifetime, I will surely never live to see humans venture beyond our solar system, and I will never set foot on another planet myself. All I can do is hope humans get there someday and comfort myself with the knowledge that there is so much to explore on this planet (if we don’t kill it first), and at least I won’t be around when the sun expands and engulfs the whole planet (a paralyzing fear that deeply upset me as a child when I had even less of a grasp of what billions of years meant).

So instead of getting lost in the idea of things I’ll never get to experience, I try to focus on the here and now and just be present. It’s a challenge.

At one point last week, Mom asked that I take a quick break from the decking and walk Pippin up the driveway for a little exercise and to check the mail. I didn’t really want to take a break from the work I was doing, but I knew I was tired and the break would probably do me good, so I obliged. On the way up the driveway, I saw a gorgeous swallowtail butterfly. She was fluttering all over a sapling, stopping on various leaves even though there were no flowers. I watched for a moment and when I looked closer, I saw that each time she chose a leaf, she curled her abdomen, touching the tip to the leaf. I’ve never seen such behavior, but I’m fairly certain she must have been laying eggs. I ran back to the house to get my phone, but when I returned, the butterfly was gone.

This is just a stock photo from, but she looked a lot like this.

I spent the next few hours tearing stubborn boards off the deck and lamenting the fact that I had “missed it.” But I hadn’t missed it. I had seen the event, stopped and witnessed it in wonder for several minutes while Pippin telepathically asked me, “Why are you stopped, Mom? I already checked that spot for interesting smells.” I had taken in the quiet beauty of the moment, but I had failed to capture it. I didn’t miss it. You missed it, and I was disappointed that I didn’t get to share it with you.

Because that’s what photos and video recordings are really about, aren’t they? Capturing a moment that we find special and sharing it with people who couldn’t be there. Social media has developed a lot of really terrible aspects, but in its purest form, it’s supposed to be about sharing the human experience with each other. We’re human, so we mess up a lot, but sometimes, we still cling to our cameras with FoMo on someone else’s behalf (secondhand FoMo?). And yet, sometimes in the act of recording, we fail to be really present in the moment, and miss the fullness of what we seek to preserve. There’s always a trade-off.

Last month, my parents met up with my dad’s sisters to go through old photos that my grandmother had organized and kept but that my grandfather no longer has a place to store. Many of the photos were of all the grandkids. There’s a peculiar comedy in looking back at pictures of my cousins and myself as goofy children, seeing them again how they live in certain memories, and especially realizing how much they look like their own children now.

But there were also several pictures of older generations. When I had downtime at the library, I spent some of it doing some genealogical research (after all, the best way to familiarize yourself with a resource is to use it). I found names and dates and connections with my ancestors, but there were so few pictures to attach to those names, and without pictures or anecdotes to assign to the people, they sort of faded together, lost without the details that really give them meaning.

I was fascinated, then, when Dad showed me the pictures he had brought home. The pictures of my great, great grandmother, and pictures of great aunts and uncles who passed long before I was born were just as engrossing as pictures from my own childhood. Seeing my parents at the age that I am now was a strange sort of magic. I looked at faces I had never seen and found familiar features repeated over and over. And I was so grateful that someone had taken a moment to take those pictures, to maybe not be entirely present so that I could, decades later, be a little present. Things I had missed out on were not entirely lost, and that at least was a comfort.

What are some of the things you fear or lament missing out on the most? Or, do you have a favorite word or phrase from another language that represents an “untranslatable” feeling? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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