Languishing, Dormant, or Wintering?
One of the most interesting aspects of this pandemic has been the way that our collective emotional state has shifted at different points throughout the past year. No matter our individual temperaments or personal circumstances, on one level many of us are experiencing some version of the same thing.
The most recent shift took place around the beginning of April, and it might be the most confusing one yet. To me, it feels like a heaviness, a blankness, a disinterest. It’s so far from my usual unfailing optimism and motivation that I’ve found it a little alarming (to the extent that I can even rouse myself to something resembling alarm).
Luckily, three thoughtful writers have released work that can help us make sense of what we’re feeling and allow ourselves to move through it with acceptance.
In his New York Times article from last month, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls the emotion of the moment “languishing.” He describes the feeling as, “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” It’s the state at the midpoint of the spectrum between depression and well-being.
And while it’s not a serious concern in its current form, if we allow ourselves to slip into languishing without being mindful of what is happening, evidence shows that down the road we may be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or an anxiety disorder.
Grant’s remedy to languishing is finding ways to get ourselves into a “flow state" of absorption that dims our awareness of our selves and everything around us as we focus on one compelling thing. It could be as simple as a movie or a game (Disney Emoji Blitz is my flow-state game of choice), or something more involved, such as deep work, embroidery, or learning a new dance step. The key is to set aside uninterrupted time, free of distractions, and to make the activity just challenging enough to hold your interest, but not so challenging that it feels discouragingly hard.
Artist Austin Kleon, author of the bestseller Steal Like An Artist, doesn’t like the word “languishing” - he prefers “dormant. Like a plant. Or a volcano. I am waiting to be activated.” While Grant, coming from the business world, naturally views things from a productivity standpoint, Kleon, the husband of a gardener, takes a more cyclical perspective.
The problem, according to Kleon, is that we’re attempting to flourish in conditions under which we should instead be cautiously biding our time until better days arrive. He points out that no living creature flourishes endlessly, and that even Michelangelo and Newton had dormant periods lasting several years while they attended to surviving, respectively, a lawsuit and a plague.
Katherine May takes a similar cyclical view in her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Though outside we’re firmly planted in spring, inside, we’re still in the figurative depths of winter as we await the moment when we’ll be able to resume some semblance of our former lives.
“Wintering,” to May, is “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.” It’s one that commonly strikes at times of illness, loss, or even the birth of a child, and that describes the current moment well.
The power of May’s book is that it wasn’t written about the pandemic at all. It’s a memoir about another dark period in her life, marked by the illnesses of herself and her husband, and a crisis involving her son, and published just before the first lockdown struck in the UK. Which speaks to the broader lesson we can learn during this time - in any lifetime there will inevitably be periods of struggle. If we can learn to weather this one well, we’ll be better prepared for future “winters” too.
May’s approach, like Kleon’s, is not so much to remedy the pain as to accept it, welcome it as part of a natural cycle, and move through it by letting go of the need to control it. She finds solace in nature, a poem, baking, reading. “We may never choose to winter,” she says, “but we can choose how.”
Take care of yourself,
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Debra Purdy is the owner of ShopEco, a voracious reader, and a bona fide skin care fanatic. Current skin care obsession: 20/20 Eye Cream by Veriphy. Current read: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa.