Soon after Adam Grant’s article There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing appeared in the New York Times, “languishing” became part of daily conversation.

“How are you?”

“Languishing.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Finally, we had a word for what we’d been feeling.

It perfectly describes the unsettling emotional state so many of us find ourselves in a solid year into the pandemic. Grant describes the term of art used in psychology:

It wasn’t burnout – we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.

Jenny Holzer via @hauserwirth + @jennyholzerstudio

Although we find the word languishing spot-on, Grant’s description didn’t quite match the feeling we experienced of the word. So we looked up languishing in our Oxford English Dictionary and in a compilation of thesauruses and found fragments that rang truer, a bit more expressively:

…have a desire for something that is not present…

….lose vigor, as through grief…

…evanesce (to “pass out of sight, memory, or existence)…

…live under conditions which lower vitality and depress the spirit…

Languishing is a subtle aspect of the grief we wrote about early on in the pandemic in The Discomfort You Feel May Be Grief in Disguise. There is residue of grief at the loss of so many aspects of our daily lives, from meals with friends to wandering into a store unguarded, even as we’ve found coping mechanisms and vaccines that seem now like they may attenuate, but not halt, the danger. It manifests as a feeling of disconnect, of living with a distracted or fragmented attention.

Andrea Dorfman’s beautiful little film How to Be at Home created in the early days of the pandemic seems as apt now, helpful as a means of seeing the extreme change we’ve been living through.

We’ve adjusted in so many ways, carrying on our lives, yet we languish. Sustained loss and change is disorienting. Adjusting to change has a timing of its own, usually way longer than we think it should.

Having a word for it helps greatly. As does knowing that many feel it. David Saltman who lived in Brazil, remarked that the Portuguese word saudade evoked the feeling of a wistful longing for something that may not even exist anymore…of languishing. We find it in Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora’s Sodade, “…such long roads we travel…”:

Sodade, Cesaria Evora

…and in the striking signs from Jenny Holzer’s Survival series (1983-1985)

Jenny Holzer via @hauserwirth + @jennyholzerstudio

Grant described a number of things we can do that can attenuate the feeling of languishing: create a quite space without the fragmenting chatter of media, work on projects that allow us to engage deeply…

We’ve found two practices that help to soften the unsettling time of languishing.

—To not judge ourselves when we don’t measure up to our old idea of ourselves that may have seemed more productive, creative, whatever. In other words to be kind to ourselves and others.

—And to remember that we are still in the midst of change. There is much more to happen, still, as languishing turns to joy.

Waiting, we listen to poet Ada Limón reading her extraordinary poem Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out

of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s

almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving

their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate

sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees

that really gets to me. When all the shock of white

and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave

the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,

the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin

growing over whatever winter did to us, a return

to the strange idea of continuous living despite

the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,

I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf

unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Jenny Holzer, ‘IN A DREAM,’ 2020, © 2020 Jenny Holzer, ARS via @hauserwirth + @jennyholzerstudio

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One thought on “The Complex Meanings of ‘Languishing’ (Jenny Holzer, Ada Limon, Cesaria Evora…)

  1. Thank you! That is so good to know about…Languishing makes sense!

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