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Running from extinction

The power of FOMO—‘fear of missing out’

Running from extinction

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The last chapter of Deuteronomy records how Moses at age 120 had “his vision undimmed and his vigor unabated.” Deuteronomy does not describe his emotional state. Many centuries later rabbis speculated that Moses wanted so much to live on, and see what happened next, that he agitatedly pleaded with God to keep him alive, even as an animal. In the rabbinical story God says no, so Moses calms down, blesses his people, and says he will see them again at the resurrection of the dead.

Israeli author Hillel Halkin, 77, offers that story in his After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton, 2016). Then he admits to FOMO: “I fear an end to the habits and joys I’ve grown used to. … How can a life that has existed cease to exist without a trace? ... How did it go by so fast? This must be a universal reaction to growing old. Everyone my age seems to have it.”

Without a trace. Judaism has long included differing views on what happens after death. Christianity is clearer about heaven and hell, but Christianity has so lost its grip that many among the old worry mostly about nonexistence. British writer Julian Barnes, 71, writes, “People say of death, ‘There’s nothing to be frightened of.’ They say it quickly, casually. Now let’s say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. ‘There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.’”

Death is scary. Robert Browning, who died in 1889, wrote, “Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat, / The mist in my face, / When the snows begin, and the blasts denote / I am nearing the place, / The power of the night.” But Browning saw such misery as temporary: “The black minute’s at end, / And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave, / Shall dwindle, shall blend, / Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, / Then a light, then thy breast, / O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, / And with God be the rest!”

FOMO is scarier. What if there is no God, and thus no more clasping? French author Jules Renard, who died in 1910, wrote, “The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.’” Julian Barnes writes of his brother who “does not fear extinction [and says] ‘it would be irrational to have such a fear.’ … IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world—how can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?”

Christianity has so lost its grip that many among the old worry mostly about nonexistence.

For British poet Philip Larkin, according to his biographer, “The dread of oblivion darkened everything. … As he entered his sixties his fears grew rapidly.” Larkin wrote, “I don’t think about death all the time, though I don’t see why one shouldn’t, just as you might expect a man in a condemned cell to think about the drop all the time. Why aren’t I screaming?” A friend visited Larkin the day before the poet died in 1985 and said, “If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”

Here’s part of Larkin’s most famous poem, “Aubade”: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. … the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. … total emptiness for ever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere. / … this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

Hell is misery forever, but those who under-fear Satan may grasp the comfort of consciousness, and consciousness brings hope. But 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert, at a dinner with others who were atheistic or strongly agnostic, admitted, “People like us should have the religion of despair.”

Some contemporary evangelists speak of hell, but I wonder whether FOMO is a bigger motivator: All the world’s a stage, and we don’t get to watch? A political fan fears never knowing who will win the election of 2080. History lovers want to know the history of the future: What is the world like in 2100? We can say how foolish such concerns are in comparison with the hope of heaven, of being with Christ. C.S. Lewis described the folly of wanting to play in a mud puddle when the ocean is nearby. But let us not scorn the small wants.


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  • Janet B
    Posted: Fri, 03/10/2017 06:33 am

    I have often thought that the greatest torment in hell will be that of being totally alone in the misery.  The not knowing about what's going on elsewhere, the loneliness, the thoughts of the past, the regrets that will torment for eternity... 

    Thank God for the hope of Jesus' cross!

  • Nate G's picture
    Nate G
    Posted: Sat, 03/11/2017 02:35 pm

    Marvin, I greatly enjoyed the read.  I suspect FOMO is the same driving desire that leads us to other vices such as envy or gossip.  Man's desire for divinity, first taking form in the garden.  As old age sets in, we realize more poignantly that we won't in fact live forever, and then despair can set in.  There's a quote by an unknown that I've long hung on to, for remembering when I'm older, "The greatest temptation of all in the latter part of life is hopelessness, often dressed up as mature resignation."  Not scorning the little things - I suspect this is why old folks in church take such delight in the toddlers.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 03/13/2017 09:05 am

    When I read the O.T. I see that God doesn't have his prophets concentrate on the length of a lifespan, but on the big picture; the lifespan of a nation and a people.  So why wouldn't it make sense that when we go to God after death, we also would see the goings on of the nations and peoples?  So much of the message of the Bible has to do with the direction of nations and cultures and one lifespan often doesn't make a dent in that direction.  Somehow I don't think we're going to be shut out of everything after we die if we're in Christ.

  • Scott B
    Posted: Tue, 03/14/2017 11:05 am

    Great points, well put. As you point out, having low expectations for the afterlife is depressing. Your column here is making me wonder whether evangelical Christians are hearing as much as they should from the pulpit about the wonderful times that we as redeemed children of God can look forward to after we die.  Many educated Protestants seem faintly embarrassed about the subject. That is too bad, since it robs the dying and their families of the robust hope and peace that should be their heritage in that situation. I don't hear of dying being referred to as "graduation" as much as I used to.

    Maybe some of that stems from the sort of misguided thinking exemplied by Kant, that to do something with the expectation of a reward is mercenary and plebian -- the truly noble man does what is right just because it is right.

      The New Testament Chistians, however, were very focused on the next life. Paul told the Corinthinians that without the prospect of a resurrection, it would be foolish to commit to Christ. Skeptics claim that such otherworldliness translates to being irresponsible in this life, but the reality is just the opposite. Their hope and reverence gave the early Christians the motivation and the strength to be better spouses and parents and citizens.


  •  JEFF's picture
    Posted: Sat, 03/25/2017 08:22 am

    FOMO? What next? An article written with emojis? ;-)

  • jim
    Posted: Tue, 12/11/2018 11:14 am

    I take comfort in Pauls take on the matter: " For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

    I now live in the "young/old" catagory, i hope to see the "old" but we will see.