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Here’s something that the doctor doesn’t diagnose one with but, apparently, it’s catchy and is a dangerous current trend. When I first heard it, I thought my mate Barney was saying something about ‘four more’. No. He was using an acronym. FOMO. Which, I learnt, stands for Fear Of Missing Out.

After hearing more about FOMO, I thought it a bit of a stretch to label it a ‘dangerous modern trend’. FOMO’s been around for ages, only it used to be known by its other name: ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.’

Not long ago I had the occasion to run into a little old lady, not much older than my own little old self. We were both taking the train up the mountains, an hourlong journey and, seated opposite each other it was natural to fall into conversation, first about the weather, then the passing scenery and gradually, as is the nature with conversations, a little about ourselves.

It was this quiet-spoken woman, the wife of a farmer and mother of six, who assured me that ‘back in the day’ she looked and sounded nothing like the person today.

Why, I inquired. Because, she said, she’d allowed her life to go into downward spiral. It was a time when she didn’t realise she’d been afflicted with FOMO. ‘Everything my better-employed, better-paid younger sister acquired I felt I had to have, too, if only to prove I was in no way inferior,’ she said.

It started off with less expensive items such as faux-branded earrings and necklaces, then moved on to clothes, shoes, handbags and cars.

In fact, she reckoned, her well-paid sister must have spotted the trend by big sister to ‘keep up’ and so began treating it as a bit of a game that rival siblings are wont to engage in from time to time. The game of ‘Anything you can do I can do better.’ Eight years it lasted, ‘by which time I found myself seriously in debt.’

Then one day her younger sister asked, ‘Would you like to join me and my date for dinner?’ Imagine that! ‘She was flaunting a newfound boyfriend before me. I could hear her saying, now try to match this! But I was so caught up with ‘keeping up’, I didn’t realise my sister was actually asking me to help her out of an awkward situation.

Poor carbon copy

Her boyfriend’s younger brother was also in town and they wanted me to make up the fourth member.’ As it turned out, the business of keeping up continued because both sisters ended up marrying the brothers.

‘My husband Joe was the younger but boy was he a man of strong personality,’ she said, as the train rattled along. Joe’s brother Sam, who married the younger sister, was a research chemist.

‘Joe’s parents wanted him to be a chemist, too,’ she said. But Joe decided he was going to be different. ‘He went into farming. He’s a man of the land. He loves doing things with nature, with his hands, with animals, with crops.’

At the time of their first dinner date, Joe knew little about the sisterly rivalry to match each other in the world of materialism. Very early on in their courtship he told her, ‘I’ve always wanted to be my own man. If I’d let my folk try to make me into Sam, I’d have been a poor carbon copy. Besides I would have missed out doing what I totally love.’

‘That was years ago,’ said the little old lady, ‘but I swear when he said that it was like a light bulb went on in my silly head. That put an end to all the stupid rivalry. Joe and I, we’ve been happily married 41 years now.’

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.