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Jessie Willms is an audience editor at The Globe and Mail.
This summer, in a park hang to celebrate two engagements and one imminent cross-country move, I had a slow-approaching, crushing thought: everyone, but me, is moving on.
Is that a thought best relegated to a preteen diary entry – scrawled in a notebook, as a song lyric, by a sad indie boy with a guitar? Yes, probably!
But there I was: I couldn’t help but feel my life was stalled in comparison to my friends. Other women in my social group have written books, had entire babies or managed to buy a home. I have accomplished none of those things.
When I stopped to think about it, I was surprised I felt bad at all. I don’t even want what most of my friends want. I have no ambition to get married. I’m a hard no on kids. And owning a house? Even if I could afford it, I wouldn’t do it.
So, what’s with this crushing fear of missing out?
Arriving after a long pandemic winter of discontent and the grief of the third wave, our pent-up need to celebrate something – anything – was palpable. Then the possibility of “hot girl summer” – a Megan Thee Stallion lyric turned catch-all phrase for the vaccine-fuelled revelry the season would bring – offered a break, something approaching a return to a time before I knew what a spike protein was. Widespread immunization meant a trip to Montreal or a camping trip with fully vaccinated friends was possible.
But the space between the isolation of the winter and the promise of a roaring 20s summer created an opening for disappointment – and oh, did disappointment arrive.
In an essay for Refinery 29 about the failed promise of hot girl summer, Michelle Santiago Cortés writes that the ode to a season of hedonism was “just the kind of projection into the future that’s far more revealing about the present than about anything coming into being. Maybe, our hopes for the future are directly proportional to our current sense of despair or exhaustion.”
The optimism we felt when the first vaccines arrived in late 2020 heightened our expectations. But the season didn’t deliver on its promise.
Instead, summer disappeared into a sad early fall, brought down by people protesting outside hospitals, by my own sister spewing disinformation in her refusal to get a vaccine, by the reality that an endemic COVID-19 is still months away (if not longer). And in the background: the United Nation’s terrifying climate report, which it called a “code red for humanity.”
All this has pushed me into a prolonged bleakness I’ve never experienced before. Adam Grant captures what I’m feeling when he describes the “emotional long-haul of the pandemic,” in The New York Times. Grant explains that languishing “is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
The FOMO I experienced in the park was not jealousy of my friends’ accomplishments. I still do not want marriage, a house, kids. And I am genuinely happy that they are happy. No, I wasn’t feeling envious of what they’d achieved. I was feeling envious of their optimism.
It’s an act of faith to commit to a life partner, to promise to like each other for the next 60 years. To have kids, you need to believe we can adequately respond to the climate crisis in time to avert its worst consequences. Buying a home assumes that your good economic fortune will continue for decades.
All I can think is: how did these people, who lived through the same pandemic experiences as I did, manage to escape the pull of hopelessness?
If nothing else, major milestones create a sense of forward momentum in our lives. They help build and maintain relationships or provide a shared sense of joy. The life events we often celebrate offer up the promise of something new, and make a bet that the future will be even brighter. It has to be. Nobody signs up to change diapers or to say “I do” thinking it will put them on a path to despair.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion, nor will I say what I don’t think is true (that there’s a silver lining and in a year this malaise will be forgotten). The future, as it always has, remains uncertain. Things might get worse before they get better. But there’s this book I love about the end of the world: Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr. In the book, the main character knows from birth that the universe will soon collapse, destroyed by a runaway comet. Each chapter is a numbered countdown to the inevitable end. And yet, it’s gleeful. Sure, we’re all one rogue comet away from everything we love being destroyed, but that doesn’t negate the joy of what we have now.
I think that’s the lesson my friends understand, and the one I still need to learn.
What else we’re thinking about:
In my pocket of Toronto, noise is constant. If it’s not cars racing late at night, it’s construction every morning, or the constant whir of a motorcycle slowly destroying my will to live. Fortunately, trees exist. I’ve taken to noise-cancelling headphones plus a forest (or ravine) to combat the draining, negative health consequences of noise pollution. Not only do trees help reduce stress and fatigue and purify the air, but did you know they can talk to each other? Not in the chit chat of mere humans – but through subterranean networks of fungi. What a simple joy a forest is. It asks for nothing, but gives back the thing I need most: silence.
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