“Plants may appear to be languishing simply because they are dormant.”
—Oxford Dictionary of English
A number of friends and colleagues have linked to Adam Grant’s piece, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” In psychology, Grant says, “we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing,” but a “term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes” that describes the “void” in between them: “languishing.” It’s a state in which, Grant says, you’re not totally burned out, but you’re not full steam, either.
“Psychologists,” says Grant, “find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them.” But one has to remember that naming doesn’t just describe the world, it creates the world, too. As Brian Eno says, “Giving something a name can be just the same as inventing it.”
We tend to see what we’re looking for, so if you hear the name for something, you start seeing it everywhere, and your eyes get trained to see that particular thing, while you miss everything else. (That’s why Paul Valery said that real seeing “is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”)
There’s also a danger that when you hear a term that sort of describes what you’re feeling, or seems right, you’ll be satisficed, and say, “Good, enough,” accept the term, and move on.
I disliked the term “languishing” the minute I heard it.
I’m not languishing, I’m dormant.
Like a plant. Or a volcano.
I am waiting to be activated.
“Nature is a language / Can’t you read?”
I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.
Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.
For example: take the mountain laurels in our backyard. One of them died from the terrible ice storm. The others have put out leaves, but not blossoms. They’ve sensed that this year is not the year to create anything new. They’re waiting for better conditions.
I’m not languishing because I’m not trying to flourish.
“Barren days, do no planting.”
—The Farmer’s Almanac
It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life.
My friend Alan Jacobs recently wrote about his exhaustion, and pointed to the work of a new favorite writer of mine, historian Ada Palmer, who has documented in several posts the ways famous historical creators have had to put their work on hold throughout history. (And how many a “golden age” is only golden in hindsight.)
For example, Michelangelo, who lost four years of work to a lawsuit:
In his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.
Or Isaac Newton, who people have held up as an example of what you can get done during a plague:
The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work. He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity. Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic. During the pandemic nobody could work properly, including him. So if anyone pushes the claim that we should all be writing brilliant books during this internationally recognized global health epidemic, just tell them Newton too might have developed gravity years earlier if not for his pandemic.
You may, indeed, be languishing, and I won’t try to take that word away from you. (I also don’t disagree with Adam Grant’s two suggestions for dealing with the feeling: “give yourself some uninterrupted time” and “focus on a small goal.”)
Me, I’m dormant.
I may even look dead, but like Corita Kent once described one of her own dormant periods, “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
Waiting to burst forth.