The Missing Dictionary Entry

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrasal verb “to miss out (on)” is an American colloquialism that arose in the early twentieth century. This meaning of “being deprived of an experience or opportunity” is a relatively new meaning for “miss” in our language; a word that actually dates back to Old English. Originally, “miss” meant “to go wrong, to make a mistake,” which has evolved to simply mean “to fail.” An everyday expression such as “miss the bus” or idioms like “miss the mark” and “miss fire” all convey some form of failure. But a second meaning of “miss” has always paralleled the first, namely, “to be without; to lack; to want.” 

I’m not a linguist, but the fact that the word “miss” in the English language has simultaneously meant “to fail” and “to want” for at least 800 years inherently makes sense. If I have not failed then I am not wanting; if I do not want something desperately then I feel an implicit sense of success in my content state. These overlapping connotations of “miss” deserve consideration. Indeed, I believe we can specifically recognize their hazy intersection with regard to the modern phenomena, the so-called “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, which has turned an American colloquialism into a widespread sense of cultural anxiety.

As previously stated, the definition of “to miss out” is “to be deprived of an experience or opportunity,” which unites both “to fail” and “to want.” For example, if you are alone on a Friday night—like I am right now, typing in my messy room—you might concern yourself with what parties and dinners are going on that you were not invited to. Or, you might be at one dinner and anxious because you feel the need to also go to a different event. That desire is not bad in and of itself; it represents a natural desire for communion with other people. But in this case the wanting is melancholy and restless.We have an implicit sense that in missing out on other people, or in being alone as opposed to among a group of people, we have failed to fully maximize the possible joy of the day. Thus, fear of missing out is the concept that combines simultaneous failure and want. 

A day comes to mind two autumns ago when I was away from college, home for a wedding that I did not care to attend. That night I missed campus-wide events and parties with my friends. I knew that they were having fun without me, and I wanted to be here. But at the same time, I felt that because they were enjoying themselves without me, I had failed as a friend. If my absence was not a detriment to their night, then why should I need to be with them so badly? These sorts of circumstances show that our fear of missing out is not fundamentally solved when we go and join people; it does not dissipate when we indulge in constant conversation for hours on end, because it is oftentimes at its core the fear that we are not being missed. We want to be wanted, to be made whole, but when will we come to terms with the fact that our completion is not found in experiences, or conversation, or even in community? To not fear being missed, to not fear missing out on joyful memory-making, we must recognize that people and excitement and laughter are moments of fleeting satisfaction in this world. 

However, I maintain that one can find peace in the bleak moments where that fear of missing out—the feeling that we are doomed to ceaseless wanting and the thought that we have failed to be worth desiring at all—can be laid to rest. Indeed, how blessed we are that God has given us the power to miss! For in missing, we can know peace. Certainly, there is a hopeful timbre in the elegy of missing, even when it intersects with failure, because it proves that that fear has been previously alleviated. For example, it seems self-evident that a single man cannot miss his future wife. He cannot mourn for her, because he has never known her. And the same goes for missing a bus or a target: either you have done it previously or have known it to be done previously. In the very act of missing, one recognizes the fulfillment of what is missing through the faculty of memory. 

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, she acknowledges this ability to find peace in absence, writing:

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.

Indeed, in the moments that I “miss out” on something, I fear my inability to feel a need to be desired specifically because I have had great experiences before and have felt loved and wanted in previous moments. To intentionally equivocate: the fear of missing out is a legitimate anxiety, but we often overlook the fact that missing itself can alleviate the distress caused by missing out. When I need to laugh, I miss that ridiculous moment my freshman year when my RA and I threw my friend in the shower. When I need to cry, I miss when my grandmother hugged me when I finally understood my great-grandfather was about to die. When I need excited joyous communion, I miss that sophomore year party that I shared with so many people I love. When I need to know love, I miss the hours that my friend sat beside me in my car, tried to understand my hurt, and wanted it healed. This is why we mourn past moments: in each elegy of missing we recapture vanished joys, allaying our anxieties.

In a few short months, I will no longer be an undergraduate at Hillsdale College. People ask, “will you miss it?” and in the sense of longing for what was, I won’t, because I feel joy in my current circumstances. But in the future, when I am alone and discontent, when I feel unwanted or when I crave the presence of others, I will not anguish in what I lack, but I will miss. What will I miss? Well, maybe a transitive verb doesn’t always need an object right away. I may miss a younger friend’s laugh or a professor’s witty lecture, a song at church or throwing a football on the quad in late fall. But how grateful am I to be able to miss, for each “ghostlier demarcation” arouses a “keener sound,” and in the moments of deprivation comes the presence of that which I lack. 

Ryan Pfeiffer is a senior staff writer studying English.

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