Let Go of the Idea That Your Life Could Have Been Anything Else

June 16, 2019
Dennis Stoelwinder | Finding Purpose

Remember when life was all about landing your first job and staying there until retirement?  When it was about marrying your high school sweetheart and raising 2,3 kids together? When it was about buying the house with the white picket fence? Remember that? Yeah, me neither.

This idea makes most modern people cringe. But, what if these people with their boring and predictable lives were better off than us? Better off than us with our infinite possibilities and as a result, non-stop FOMO (fear of missing out)?

Because of the simple fact that they didn’t constantly torture themselves with the million and one things they could have been doing instead:
* If I moved abroad years ago, then I would be happy now.
* If my life is like this Instagram feed, then people will like me.
* If I worked at company X instead of company Y, then I would have a sense of meaning.

Sally’s dream for Tessa

Let’s go back a couple of years. To be exact, back to 1989, where 24-year-old pregnant Sally was ironing John’s stinking boxers. Sally managed the house while smooth undie John worked 50 hours a week to get bread on the table. At just 24, their lives were pretty much planned out for the rest of their lives and wouldn’t change much.

Sure, Sally sometimes dreamed of better places as well, but she knew her options were limited, and she needed to make the best of it. She had a clear purpose and knew what to focus on, and she did so with grace. Sally looks back to a simple and fulfilling life, where FOMO didn’t even exist, and she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Fast forward to the year 2019. Sally’s daughter Tessa finds herself in an entirely different scenario. She can do whatever the fuck she wants, and that’s exactly what she does. 30-year-old Tessa has had eight jobs and 11 relationships with all genders available in the last five years. She’s been all over the world and had many great options in life that go way beyond her mother’s imagination. Tessa had more experiences in five years than her mother in 60. What a time to be alive!

This was everything Sally dreamed of for Tessa and worked so hard for with John. Tessa could be anything she wanted, but shit didn’t pan out the way Sally anticipated.

How FOMO fucked Tessa’s life up

Tessa is confused, on prescription medication for her depression, and can’t focus on a single thing for five minutes. Despite the infinite possibilities, Tessa ended up a wreck, and Sally can’t wrap her head around it.

The constant idea that our lives could be something else than it is, dwelling on it, and continuously shifting directions, makes not just Tessa, but an entire generation completely lost,  miserable, and weak. A generation with a constant FOMO cloud above their heads.

The reality is that the new generation is weaker than their parents. This is the first time in history and a catastrophic event for humanity. After centuries of growing stronger as a species and thriving, we are declining. I betcha good ‘ol Sally didn’t have the extinction of humanity in mind when she busted her ass to make the sky the limit for her princess, but hey, shit happens.

Enter FOMO: the fear of missing out

But, why do Tessa and her peers switch their lives around so much? Why are they a bunch of lost and weak mofos? Is it a healthy drive and awareness that’s fueled by the notion of wanting to experience life at its fullest?

Or is it FOMO: an unhealthy fear of missing out? Is it the constant voice that keeps telling you, “there’s something much better going on somewhere else, and you’re the only one not at the party, sucks to be you”?

I think the latter.

By listening to that haunting voice, you enter a never-ending cycle. We consume 24/7, the world moves faster than ever, and every piece of content you see is just a bit better than the one you saw before. You’ve entered a state in which fear is the predominant ruler, and that’s a bad place from which to operate.

A state of FOMO

FOMO is a weird form of fear. In its essence, fear is based on something being taken away from you. Someone is stealing your bike, threatening your safety, or when shit hits the fan, killing your fearful ass. All excellent reasons to be scared.

But, in the case of FOMO, you are afraid that something that isn’t even yours and that you are still unaware of gets ‘taken’ away from you.

How can you enjoy what you’re doing now if you are always in a state of FOMO? You can’t enjoy what you are doing now, because at this moment you are physically looking for something better to do right now. Hence the reason you keep scrolling Instagram, checking your messages, and being unfocused. It just might happen that that one thing you don’t want to miss passes along. And even if you seem physically present, your mind wanders off in the realm of fear and comes up with all kinds of things you could be missing at this very moment. It’s a bizarre phenomenon.

When you are in a state of FOMO, you are constantly searching for the perfect experience, but are never able to experience the actual experience. You end up with a ton of mediocre and fragmented experiences, while your ultimate goal has always been quality, the finer things in life. In search of better, you missed out on life.

When Tessa finally comes home from a week of chasing shiny objects and the next big thing, she’s tired and has a ton of information to process, but you can fix those things with a good night’s rest. There must be something else in play. You don’t just stumble upon misery, weakness, and feeling lost.

The illusion of having your life figured out

When you look around you, it feels like everyone has it figured out. Everyone has their dream job, fantastic relationship, goes on vacation three times a year, and their Instagram feed looks straight out of a magazine. We all tell the story of perfection, and we all buy into it, but deep down, we know it’s bullshit.

When we see our own magazine-worthy Instagram feed, we know it’s a lie. Date night with the girls looks fantastic on the gram, but you know the night was lame, Kelly was a bitch again, and the food was tasteless and gave you diarrhea. The photo, however, looks ‘a-ma-zing! #BFF’ #bestnightever’, and when you see it while shitting the last remainings of your 60 euro dinner out for the 8th time that night, you feel like a big fat liar.

So, there you are with your 30+ years on this planet. With your beautiful life, but on the inside, you’re dying. You try to keep up with the Joneses, but when you lay awake in bed, you know you’re at the end of your rope, simply because you can’t keep up with those annoying Joneses.

The actual process

You feel miserable, like a failure, and you’re ashamed. You are fragmented because no matter how hard you try, it’s never good enough. And you have to look good, have a prestigious full-time career, run a household, and raise three kids. Oh, and don’t forget about date night with the girls now!

You’re struggling so hard to figure it out, but it just doesn’t seem to work.

But guess what. Having it figured out is bullshit. Having things figured out is a fixed mindset, and when the world moves so fast, fixed things don’t last. Figuring things out along the way is way more beneficial and works in the long run.

Figuring things out means you will be struggling, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process. What’s not okay is that everyone pretends like they got their shit figured out and don’t struggle.

The struggle is real

Society doesn’t talk about the struggle. It’s always perfect pictures and people that accidentally stumbled upon success and happiness. When someone asks how things are going, you put on a fake smile and say: “I’m fine, busy, busy, busy, you know me!” (and when you walk around the corner you break down in tears for the 6th time that day).

But, we all want to know about the struggle. Once we move past the initial shame and facade that we all have it figured out, we are open to someone’s struggle because it’s so relatable.

We love movies of people struggling and going through hard times because it’s real. It’s a story of hope. Even though the character in the film went through the struggle, he came out a better man. It’s the hero’s journey. The struggle was just what he needed to become who he was destined to be.

Suffering leads to healing

Even though we love a good story about struggle, we don’t want to bother with it ourselves. Why should we? There’s enough to take our minds of the struggle (FOMO, anyone?). We deny it, push it away. We believe life is all about happiness and unicorns that shit rainbows. The moment things become just a bit challenging or hard, we take the easy route and pick something else. Something new and exciting. And while we jump from one exciting thing to the next, we condition ourselves and become weak people that hit the ground with the first jab life gives us.

But the struggle doesn’t care that you pretend that it isn’t there. It just stays where it is, slowly building momentum, and one day it knocks you out, you burn out, or even worse. And you never saw it coming, because you were too busy chasing one shiny object after another.

In the struggle, you suffer, and suffering is the process to heal. Accepting the struggle is taking responsibility. Suffer as long as you need, but not a moment more. When the music is gone, and the lights go on, go back home. Embody the experience, transcend, and carry on.

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” Carlos Castaneda

Freedom is a prison

The main driver of FOMO is, well, the fear of missing out (excellent work, Sherlock). The sky is the limit, and therefore, we are fully open to it. We are entirely free to become who we want to be, and paradoxically, we become nothing at all. We run up and down the playing field completely clueless of where the goal is, and we never score.

There are too many things to pick from, and as a result, we choose nothing.

Passion and purpose come from doing the work, not the other way around. We have to decide what we will invest our time in and what is interesting enough for us to pursue. And to make that choice tangible, we need boundaries. Being free is a fantastic concept, but if you have no idea what to do with that freedom, you are a prisoner of it.

Accept that you can’t do it all and that that is perfectly fine. Society has fucked us, and we now have a model for both men and women that isn’t realistic at all. You can’t be everything at the same time, you must choose. If you want to be a full-time stay at home mom, great! If you wish to pursue a career, also great!

But, whatever you do, don’t beat yourself over the head if you can’t do both at the same time. Set boundaries, pick something, and truly commit. Commit for a specific time and don’t bailout. Go past the excitement and through the boring middle part. When the excitement and rapid growth from the early stage fades, keep pushing through the struggle and develop yourself. Give everything you got.

I fucked up

If you feel like you fucked up, just say, “I fucked up”. Let go of the idea that your life could have been anything else than what it is right now. Not happy about it? Take responsibility and change it today. Don’t worry about all the days and years before yesterday.

It’s easy to mope around and act as the world fucked you over. But guess what? Nobody is coming to your pity party. Being sick and down is a perfect excuse to escape the unattainable model that society has put up for you, but it doesn’t serve you well. Whatever happened to you might not be your fault, but it’s your responsibility.

Your life couldn’t be something else than it is today, because it’s the way it is because of you. If you’ve got a fucked-up life now and feel you should have turned left when you turned right, your life would probably still be fucked up because of, well, you.

If you’re a stubborn fucker and think left would really have made a difference, here’s the thing: you will never find out.

A message for Tessa

Tessa and her entire generation will never read this article beyond the first paragraph, because there are a million other more exciting things going on, but maybe this shortlist will reach them someday, some way.

1. Stop chasing the next big thing and focus on one thing at a time
2. Having your life figured out is bullshit. Figure it out along the way
3. The struggle is a good thing. I hope you suffer
4. Fuck freedom, set boundaries and commit
5. Passion and purpose come after the work
6. Enjoy the present, read this

Photo credit: Elijah O’Donnell

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