Jeanne Proust is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Fordham University.
If there’s one thing the pandemic helped me realize, it’s how deeply FOMO was spoiling my life. All of a sudden, plans, gatherings and events I might miss evaporated. It was a huge relief: There I was, liberated, precisely when deprived of choices to make.
Until recently, that is, when a new normal emerged — once again with an arsenal of overwhelming possibilities. Was I to fall back into despair? Or could I try to heal myself from my free will anxieties using philosophical resources I could put into practice?
FOMO, to me, is more than jealousy born of social media; I’ve never had a Facebook or Instagram account. I knew those platforms would be the end of me, weaponizing my cynicism and disdain (I am French after all).
More broadly and profoundly, I see FOMO as an echo of an existential conundrum related to a deep sense of irresolution in the face of the myriad possible paths our lives can take. It manifests as a form of disquieted paralysis that for me had always been a significant source of suffering, to the point where I wanted to dedicate my Ph.D. thesis to it. My pathological, all-encompassing uncertainty was why I chose to study philosophy in the first place: I simply couldn’t decide on a career. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at or interested in other subjects. But choosing among them felt like a daunting sacrifice. The author André Gide’s famous quote, “choisir, c’est renoncer” (“to choose is to renounce”), became my life’s tragic motto.
FOMO seems to have first appeared two decades ago when a marketing strategist named Dan Herman mentioned it in the Journal of Brand Management. But the “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” is older, a phenomenon fundamental to our human condition.
This condition has been exacerbated by today’s technology-obsessed society. The “infobesity” coming from social media platforms — the proliferation of possibilities, or at least the illusory impression of such an abundance, along with an ungrounded sense of accessibility — feeds an unprecedented awareness of how other people live their lives: what they watch, buy, enjoy, know, experience and share.
I’ve been wondering if we have it all wrong. Instead of looking at the immediate social and psychological causes and effects of a narrowly defined FOMO, and at Band-Aid solutions from shallow self-help books, shouldn’t we ask ourselves if perhaps we misunderstand regret and its anticipation over the choices we make? Perhaps FOMO, and irresolution in general, is just the byproduct of a distorted perspective on the relationship between time and free will.
I used to be fascinated (and terrified) by Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of freedom as a burden. I felt squashed by responsibility: What you decide to do will ultimately define who you are. In an existentialist sense, FOMO stems from a conception of freedom involving a plurality of equally possible futures that are all realizable. But this is not the only way to think about it. Luckily, Sartre’s anxiogenic existentialism has comforting competitors.
Back in 2006, as I was about to leave the Humboldt-Universität library, I spotted a worn-out, left-behind little book whose title intrigued me: “The Possible and The Real.” Henri Bergson thus entered my life. And he was going to save me from the pangs and throes of indecision.
I immediately fell in love not only with his very elegant and limpid style (such a relief when I was sweating over Hegel and Heidegger), but also with his understanding of free acts as unfolding creations emerging from the depths of ourselves, yet always unpredictable. Bergson’s conception of freedom can provide a remedy to many deep anxieties pertaining to the fear of missing out. By adopting his understanding of free acts, one can learn how to let go of the misleading metaphor of the “tree of possibles” crippling our decision-making capacities.
For Sartre, freedom transcends who you are: The possibilities you face are ready to impale you with responsibility as soon as you choose to realize them. Bergson’s freedom is immanent: It is grounded in the self, in our character, in our past. Bergson seems to postulate that our “free” actions reflect an essence (the deep self, the past, the personality) of what precedes them. They flow from the most intimate self.
At first glance, Bergson seems to be falling into mere determinism: Is there any freedom if everything is the result of choices already made? Are our decisions just the automated, predetermined product of personal identity? It is not that simple.
Bergson’s concept of the deep self is nothing like a fixed essence. The self is a process, perpetually maturing, never “essentializable,” never absolutely determined or determining. The qualitative continuity between the self and its free acts is not static: A free act always unfolds, emerges as something perpetually new, though not radically so. Our free decisions are not reducible to the self as it is at a given moment, because when that moment is being conceived it is already past. The self continually grows as it is deciding, as it acts.
Being free is not about having the ability to do anything. It is about embracing the act we are doing as the expression of who we are becoming. We aren’t coerced into doing things by a third party, or by strong and alienating habits that form what Bergson calls our “superficial self.” Most of what we do are reactions, partially automated, adapted to the social and biological demands of daily routine. By contrast, we act freely when we act upon the continuous, heterogeneous multiplicity of our deep selves, when we are attentive to our most fundamental tendencies, which are perpetually in flux, below the superficial crust of our habitual behavior. “To act freely is to retake possession of oneself,” Bergson wrote. “It is to place oneself back in pure duration.”
Through intuitive thinking and careful and deep introspection, we can break through that crust and birth authentic, free acts. Truly free acts are therefore rare: It is difficult to listen to our inner “duration,” our deep tendencies constantly becoming, permeating one another. It is challenging to put ourselves in tune with our whole moving, growing personality.
Our ordinary conception of free will is that a future scenario presents the same level of possibility as any other, and that we somehow have the ability to choose between them. Bergson thought that was the fruit of a retrospective illusion. “It is the real which makes itself possible, and not the possible which becomes real,” he wrote. It is only when something actually happens, when it becomes real, that it becomes possible: There is no temporal anteriority of the possible before its realization. At best, we can say that once something has happened, it was possible. We retroactively qualify as possible what is now actualized and real, forgetting that we have to wait until then to call it possible. It’s easy to predict what tomorrow could look like, but products of imagination aren’t the same as seeing the future.
At the end of “The Possible and the Real,” Bergson insists on the benefits of this way of reflecting on our well-being: “In this speculation on the relation between the possible and the real, let us guard against seeing a simple game,” he wrote. “It can be a preparation for the art of living.” We project “possible” futures based on nothing but the past. But the future is fundamentally uncharted. Trying to predict it is a vain endeavor — and so is attempting to imagine what might have happened if different decisions had been made. Saying “I should have gone” or “If I had gone, this or that would have happened” are not only utterly useless, they are absurd: They don’t mean anything at all. They misconstrue reality by omitting what it is made of: growing, concrete duration. We cannot travel through time, rewind and grab missed branches at will. These branches never existed nor could have existed.
FOMO and other “decision disabilities,” as I like to call them, are built on the illusion that time is space or can be spatialized. But duration (concrete, real, lived time) operates as a growing snowball: It is the dense process of the past perpetually feeding itself with the present, thereby accumulating, growing and reshaping itself constantly, making it simply impossible to predict what will be or could have been. The deep self is precisely this dynamic process of interpenetration of mental flows, which creates the future from the past but also reorganizes the past. The accumulation of new moments reorganizes the whole self, therefore making all decisions and actions, when stemming from it, utterly new and unpredictable.
The “possible” has no existence, even as a fleshless idea, before the act. A possibility becomes a possibility when it is realized: A free act creates the possible as we enact it — it doesn’t choose among preformed possibilities. How do you know you were free when deciding to read this article? Because, you might be tempted to say, you could have done otherwise — you could have chosen to do something else instead. But that is a gross misunderstanding about how life and reality as duration unfold.
Does this mean it is absurd to regret anything? That we should never feel guilty for what we think we’ve done wrong? Certainly not, but we cannot possibly be transported back in time to make better decisions. It is because we took certain decisions in the past, some of which we regret, that we are now willing to make amends — and better decisions.
Time is not a vacuum in which our free acts take place — it is a textured duration, a creative force manifesting itself through the uninterrupted change and the accumulative mobility of the self. The free act emerging from that self remains unpredictable, even for the one who is doing it — not from nothing, but as a creation. Like an artist’s painting: A work of art will never perfectly match what the artist had imagined. It will be radically new, though it emerges from the artist.
Determinists and defenders of free will alike ignore the “processual” nature of reality. They both say that if free will exists, it has to be defined as radically undetermined. For Bergson, on the other hand, a free act translates who we are as a perpetually growing, interpreting, transforming self. Our character is always present in all our decisions, as a synergetic, holistic synthesis of all our past states. But it is not determining our actions in a mechanistic way.
Instead of hypocritically trying to embrace a JOMO (“joy of missing out”) attitude, we should more radically let go of the assumptions behind FOMO and JOMO alike by changing our perception of what time and free will really are. Bergson’s freedom — durational, personal and creative — invites us to intuitively grasp the unforeseeable newness that our perpetually evolving personality brings with itself at every instant. That here and now in the making should not be just the object of a healthy, humble resignation; it should be the occasion of perpetual marvel.
Bergson rejected the idea of a tree of possibilities and the angst that it generates in us: There are no such things as missed opportunities, as “dead” branches left behind, as futures renounced. So say goodbye to the incapacitating shoulda, coulda, woulda obsession. And be amazed at the continual creation of unpredictable novelty.