Wednesday 20 March 2024

The Joy of Missing Out: Not Doing Things Is a Thing I Do Now

I am now quite cured of seeking pleasure in society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in himself.

— Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

A few Fridays ago, I found myself contemplating the weekend ahead of me. Aside from a few chores I was free to spend it any way I chose. I turned options over in my mind. A trip to the coast? Tynemouth, maybe. Whitley Bay. Cullercoats. South Shields. A day in the city? A walk down to the Quayside. Eldon Square. The library. The natural history museum. Caffè Nero. Further afield, perhaps? Durham. Hexham. These were all places I used to visit regularly. None of them stirred interest or excitement. Not even a little.

I ask myself this question almost every week. The answer seldom varies: coffee and scribbles. It’s worth the time it takes to check in with myself, though. To make sure that writing for four or five hours at the coffee shop is how I want to spend my day, and not simply a routine I’ve fallen into. There are a few exceptions. Every month or so I meet up with my friend and fellow blogger Aimee. Twice a year in April and October I take time off work and rent a car for days out. In the summer, a week in the Lake District. A handful of other day trips or events. If you’re looking for me on a Saturday, though, it’s a safe bet I’ll be at Costa Coffee. It’s where almost all my blog posts are written, this one included.

It wasn’t always this way. Until 2020, I went out every weekend. More often or not, I’d catch the train into Newcastle city centre, but any of the places I mentioned earlier would have been on the cards. I enjoyed meeting up with friends, but I was more than happy being out on my own. The pandemic reset things for me. I got used to not going places, and found meaning in activities that didn’t require traveling far, if at all. I made an effort to pick up the threads once restrictions lifted, but with very few exceptions the allure had evaporated. I wouldn’t necessarily say covid taught me what was truly important to me, but I discovered that many things I’d cherished previously were no longer on the list.

It’s fair to say I saw it coming. I blogged right through the pandemic, exploring what was happening and what might lie on the other side. Two posts are especially relevant to what I’m discussing here. Prescient, even. I shared my early thoughts and feelings in A Postcard from My Lockdown Vacation. It was April 2020, a matter of weeks into the first UK lockdown. I was accutely aware of my privileged situation. My job was secure and I could work from home. I had no significant health or money worries. That said, it was a time of extreme uncertainty for me, as it was for everyone. All plans and expectations for the year ahead had been upended, with no idea how long the disruption would last or how things would be afterwards. I was nevertheless able to write that “five weeks and one staycation in, I can honestly say I’m doing okay.”

A year later, the impact of the pandemic was becoming clear. In What If I Never Do All the Things I Used to Do? I described some of the changes covid had wrought in my life. These were trivial on a global scale, but significant personally. Several of the places I used to go and the things I used to do were beyond recall. A favourite restaurant closed, never to reopen. A much loved holiday cottage taken off the market. Other activities and venues had survived but things weren’t the same. How could they be? I was sad, but holding on to the past wasn’t a healthy option. As I wrote, “I don’t have a list of things I want to do again. Like it used to be or like we used to do are false hopes, illusions, to my current way of thinking at least. Instead, I will hold myself open to whatever is possible, available, present, and real.” Three years on, those words remain valid.

I’ve written previously about living vicariously through the experiences of others. A few weeks ago I accompanied Fran on a video call as she walked from her apartment down to the water front of Portland. Photos, messages, and calls keep our 3,000 mile friendship strong. As we’ve long asserted, no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care. The same is true of other friends, whether they live abroad or here in the UK. I take great pleasure in the photos friends share of places I used to visit. I simply have no interest in revisiting them myself. I’m less interested in exploring the physical world and more interested in exploring the inner realm of my thoughts and feelings.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, though it might raise concern in others. Losing interest in things that previously brought joy, meaning, and value is a classic — and valid — indicator for depression. I’m not dismissing the possibility. On the contrary, I’ve written extensively about feeling low at times, of lacking a sense of purpose and direction. That’s not what I’m exploring here, however. I use the word explore deliberately. I use it a lot in my blog posts, regardless of the topic under discussion. It’s what I’m doing, internally, when I’m not out there doing stuff. Doing stuff can be fun, exciting, and healthy. It can also be a distraction from what’s really going on. Slowing down, withdrawing from doing and going, offers me the opportunity to examine what’s important to me and what isn’t.

I’m reminded of something a friend shared with me once, about living life as if it’s an expedition. So, what’s my expedition? What am I exploring? In addition to my mental health, I write on a range of topics that are relevant to me personally. These include toxic masculinity, the creative tension between wanting to communicate and wanting to hide, alexithymia (finding it hard to express one’s feelings in words), and the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus.

How and where do I engage in this kind of inner exploration? For most of my life, I’ve taken myself off for a good long walk if I had something on my mind. During my teenage years in Liverpool I’d regularly go for local walks, as well as day-long hikes around the country with my favourite aunt. At university in Bradford I’d do the same. The nearby park and abandoned railway line were regular haunts, but I’d occasionally head out of the city if I needed more time and space. Prior to 2020, I valued the twenty minutes it took to walk to and from my office from the train station. It gave me the chance to unwind, to think through whatever was going on for me, or set things aside and not think at all. Throughout the pandemic I took two or three local walks a day. I’ve let that lapse, but I might start again, especially now it’s spring and the weather is improving. My point is that walking helped me explore things internally. That was its primary purpose and value to me. Typing away for hours in a coffee shop might not be as good for my physical health, but it affords the equivalent scope for inner exploration. One that feels more in tune with my life currently.

The term I used in the title of this piece — the joy of missing out — warrants explanation. Often abbreviated to JOMO, it stands as a counterpoint to FOMO, the fear of missing out. How do I feel about this situation in which I find myself? Does spending almost all my free time not doing things and going places still bring me joy? In a word, yes. I feel at ease, content, able to focus my attention where and how I wish. It brings satisfaction, value, and peace. Lucy Maude Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, captured this perfectly.

I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.

— L. M. Montgomery

I’m not missing out by living my life in this way at this time. On the contrary, I choose to “do things and go places” when they’re important or valuable to me, rather than out of habit or as a distraction. It’s about choosing, not isolating. I’m not taking this inner journey alone. My blog posts may be the public account of my adventures, but they are are inspired by — and contribute to — the life I share with friends and family. I’m blessed to have people who invite me into their lives and enjoy an active role in mine. I rarely feel alone, and almost never lonely. In the words of American poet and essayist Kathleen Norris, “Anything, everything, little or big becomes an adventure when the right person shares it.”


I’d like to thank photographer Ishan Gupta. It took longer than usual to find the perfect image for this article, but the moment I discovered Ishan’s gallery at Unsplash I knew my search was over.


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