A half dozen of us gathered recently for Easter dinner, a collection of single friends. Jazz, rack of lamb, Alsatian wine, animated conversations about politics. It felt like the Before Times. As we tucked into our dessert, the neighbors dropped in—a youngish couple with their 10-year-old son, Andre.
About half of the group drifted to the balcony. Andre and I stayed inside, and one of the hosts told him about Zydeco music. Spotify obliged, an effervescence colonized the room, and Andre started dancing on the living room carpet. His open face radiated as he smiled at me.
Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion asserts that a body at rest will remain at rest. It appears that this is especially true for older people at dinner parties. But the latter half of Newton’s law offers the counterbalance to inertia. Law One says that a lack of motion can be broken when it is acted on by an external force. An outgoing child, fizzy music and an invitation: it was my winning trinity of external force.
I joined Andre, and we danced on the carpet, which was checkerboarded with colored squares. Our dancing morphed into a free-style Twister game. We flowed into a stream of play, improvising rules about jumping and freezing in place, daring each other with new moves, squealing in our delight. I didn’t notice when the rest of the grown-ups drifted back in. For a good, long spell it was me and Andre and lightness and improv and play and joy. It had been a long time since I felt joy. It had been a long time since I played.
The well-spoken and wise Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel says that play is kinetic problem solving. My problem? Overeating from an emotional menu many of us have been tasting since the pandemic descended: ennui, depression, uncertainty, disappointment, stress, burnout, worry. I’m a university professor and like billions across the globe, my work migrated onto a computer screen and my ass found permanent residence in a chair. As David Byrne says: “This is not my beautiful life.”
After the initial numbness of the new reality last year, I thawed and knew I couldn’t spend the upcoming academic year lamenting and kvetching. To keep my motor running, I pivoted to a larky, can-do attitude. I attended workshops to explore new ways of engaging students. I adapted. I experimented. Day by day, I put on my teacher face and soldiered into Zoomville, bearing the exhausting weight of pretending and holding space for my students to voice their struggles. I felt nothing; I felt everything.
It worked for a while. Until it didn’t.
About five friends sent the link to an April 19 article in the New York Times by organizational psychologist Adam Grant who talks about “the emotional long haul” of the pandemic. Languishing is his word for a feeling we may have been feeling but have not properly named. “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,” Grant writes.
I tried on languish for a few days but the fit wasn’t right. Somewhat joyless? Joy had evaporated. Languishers still had energy? I dragged. I slogged. Languishing sounds like something that besets the idle rich. It is a word too easy on the ear with the sh finale decrescendoing into a whisper. What I was feeling contained more emptiness, fewer active molecules.
A few weeks after Grant’s essay was published, I read writer/artist Austin Kleon’s take on languish in his blog. Kleon says he isn’t languishing; he is dormant. “Like a volcano. Or a plant.” Kleon sees himself as pent-up energy doing the waiting game. In his blog post, he turns to the cycles of nature for metaphors and notes how plants appear withered only to bloom after their dormancy. “I am waiting to be activated,” he writes.
Again, not the right descriptive fit for my malaise. Kleon’s dormancy is predicated on patience and the ability to believe in the eventual turn of events. Something stored, fertilized by faith and waiting to be released? I cannot grok that.
Unlike Kleon and Grant, I’ve got nothing in my tank, no reservoir, no secret stash of secret sauce. I’ve felt more like Atlas on empty in quicksand. I am not languishing or dormant. What I am is inert. Until that night not so long ago when I wasn’t.
And all I want is more of that.
Originally a flatlander, Laura Kelly is a journalism professor who teaches writing and storytelling at the American University in Bulgaria. She lives in Flagstaff during the summer months and calls the city one of her homes. She uses Mary Oliver’s words as her manifesto: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”