For the past six months or so, I’ve struggled to answer that oh-so-common question of “how are you?” I mean, do I say that I’m so beat down by pandemic fatigue and allostatic load and every freaking decision fraught with moral issues at best and life-and-death issues at worst that I want to curl up in a ball and sob? Or do I tell them that I’m so grateful that we have our health and our family is safe and I have a decent job and my kids are relatively happy and we have a comfortable home that I could cry tears of happiness? Or do I respond honestly and say that most days I feel some mix of loneliness-frustration-gratitude-fear-exhaustion-gratitude, with a heaping mix of confusion about what the fuck am I doing with my life?
Something tells me that isn’t the response most people want to hear. So I usually just sigh and say, “I’m fine…I guess.”
But deep down, I know the truth – just like you know the truth – I’m not fine. And I’m guessing you aren’t either. Just because we aren’t in crisis mode and we’re grateful for what we have doesn’t mean we’re doing well.
Here’s the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty truth: I feel a lot like Eeyore lately. I don’t feel terrible, but I don’t feel good either. I’m not feeling as beat down as six months ago, when I had a constant headache and my jaw hurt from all the stress-induced teeth grinding, and I’m feeling a whole lot more optimistic than even a couple months ago, but I’m still…I don’t know… off.
I’m unproductive. Unmotivated. Lethargic. I spend a lot of time sighing. My response to most questions: Who cares? I mean, really, who fucking cares?
Until a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was just me. It’s not. And Adam Grant’s viral article in the New York Times – There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing – proved it. This article is everywhere and everyone’s talking about it. Why? Because we’re all feeling it.
“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness,” Grant wrote. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
That isn’t to say that some folks aren’t really struggling. They are. Or that some folks aren’t thriving. They are. But many of us are languishing. We’re not really depressed, but we’re not really happy either. We’re just…blah. Or maybe it’s blegh. Depends on the day, I suppose.
Languishing is decreased motivation, inability to focus, and shrinking productivity. It’s the sighs and the blahs and the bleghs and the who-fucking-cares. It’s emotional confusion and anxiety about getting your hopes up.
There’s reason to be optimistic, to be hopeful, to feel renewed energy. Vaccines are widely available, and most people I know have had at least one dose by now. Even CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said we’re seeing a “a really hopeful decline” in the number of daily cases.
But after nearly 15 months of doomsday news, anything that isn’t dread feels odd. Looking forward to something fun and, dare I say, “normal,” like a family vacation or a BBQ with friends feels uncomfortable and fruitless. Like I’m just setting myself up for disappointment when that thing I’d been looking forward to doesn’t happen. Should I feel hopeful or stay on high alert? Either way, I feel like I’m being gaslit.
So we’re feeling it – we’re languishing – but what in the world do we do about it?
The first step is admitting it. Instead of the automatic response of “fine” or “good,” we tell people how we’re really doing when they ask. “It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity — that quintessentially American pressure to be upbeat at all times,” Grant wrote.
He also suggests finding small chunks of “flow” in our day – anything that creates “that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.” Cleaning out your garage, doing a crossword puzzle, or tending to your garden can all do the trick.
And there is real power in acknowledging our individual and our collective pain. After all, we can’t heal what we don’t see. As Grant points out, “’Not depressed’ doesn’t mean you’re not struggling.”
I’ll admit it, I am struggling. Not as much as I was a few months ago, but each day feels like a slog. But you know what? Knowing that there’s a word for it – languishing – and that others are feeling this kind of existential Eeyore-ish-ness too, really does make me feel just a little better.
Maybe it makes you feel a little better too.