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Rachel Elliott on the fear of missing out

25th Aug 2015

Rachel Elliott
Rachel Elliott's debut novel, Whispers Through a Megaphone, explores relationships and meaning-making, from the hyper-connectedness of Twitter through to the gentle friendship between a woman who can't speak above a whisper and a man who's run away from his whole life. She took some time out to write us this beautiful reflection on idleness, imagination, and the importance of disconnecting.

In July, I was waiting to see Damien Rice at Bristol’s Colston Hall when I overheard a conversation about knickers. A woman and her boyfriend were in front of me in the queue.

‘I was feeling so good today,’ she said, ‘until I saw Jenny’s knickers.’

‘What?’ he said.

‘Well, you know my new knickers,’ she said. ‘The ones I thought were sexy.’

‘Yeah,’ he said.

‘Well I don’t like them anymore.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since I saw Jenny’s.’

‘I can’t believe she posted a picture of herself in her pants,’ he said.

‘No, she’d just bought them. They’d gone to Sam’s Kitchen for a sausage roll and three salads. Why don’t we ever go anywhere nice for lunch? Do you like my knickers?’

Then they had an argument. Which struck me as sad, because they seemed happy enough until Jenny showed up with her knickers.

Before social media, if you wanted to see a friend’s underwear, you had to ask. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something nice about that. We never used to see photos of our friends’ beautiful purchases, their meals out, their Sunday afternoon picnics in the prettiest parks.

Ignorance is bliss. And there’s a lot to be said for being bored in ugly places. As a child, I was happy cycling around a cul-de-sac. Happy in a deeply bored kind of way – a way that kickstarted my imagination and made me write stories. If I had seen a photo of a friend doing something exciting in a spectacular location, this experience would have been interrupted. I would have felt like I was missing out.

The fear of missing out is now so common that it has its own acronym: FOMO. And we’ve all got it. We’ve had it forever, on account of being human, but social media has upped the ante, made the grass even greener, made it harder to live in the present. All these images of what a life should contain: lunches out, new purchases, travel to fabulous places. We often say that advertising lowers our self-esteem, makes us view ourselves negatively, but the devices and apps we love mean that we are each other’s voyeurs and consumers.

My debut novel is about a woman called Miriam Delaney who feels that other people are more real, sane, busy and exciting than she is. This is a common issue for many people. It’s easy to become possessed by the idea that others are leading better lives. The speed of technological development and the ubiquity of social networking have made this feeling stronger than ever. We are surrounded by narratives about other selves and lives, there is an overwhelming amount of choice and this generates competitiveness, envy, comparing ourselves to others, a sense of inferiority.

So many of us are public storytellers, putting a version of the self online, often the funny and lively one, the fully functioning ‘normal’ person, not the one sitting in their kitchen, feeling inadequate and alone, wondering how to leave the house or what to do with the hours that lie ahead. Technology isn’t the problem and neither is social networking. There are so many positive things to say about both of these things. But anxiety and feelings of inferiority are rife, so perhaps there’s something we need to be saying about this – and the value of peace, quiet and boredom. The value of regenerating in silence.

Silence is in short supply. Being at home used to provide us with a restorative space – it was a way of being unavailable to people other than your immediate family. Home used to be private, a kind of haven, but our use of technology has made it public. This is depriving us of something essential. Yes, there are times when we need to be seen and found, but there are also times when it’s vital to be hidden – for the sake of space, recuperation, thinking time; for the sake of our mental and physical wellbeing.

[pull]Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the surge in popularity of mindfulness has come at a time when we are all constantly processing vast amounts of information. We live our lives in a state of hyper-vigilance. Traditionally, hyper-vigilance, or a heightened state of awareness, has been regarded as a response to trauma. Our brains are still learning how to cope with hyper-connectedness – with being bombarded by text and images.

The Damien Rice concert was fantastic, by the way. I saw the couple again in the interval, sitting in the bar, drinking cider, her head on his shoulder, his hand on her leg as they peacefully stared into space.

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Rachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. Whispers Through a Megaphone is published by ONE, an imprint of Pushkin Press.

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Don’t forget to check out our review of Whispers Through a Megaphone, too!