The pandemic has taught us a lot about ourselves. Too much, some might say. Too much, about the limits of a relationship forced to live between two people in a one-room flat, an indoor cat gazing out at the birds. Too much about our handwashing habits; too much about our children’s teachers’ front rooms. Too much about our children. Too much about love; too much about grief; too much about boredom – and its long, grey tail. Too much about fear and how we deal with it in ways that hurt us. Too much about what we eat when we are alone; too much about the awful way our bodies react when we hear the buzz of a text message. Too much about the barren ecosystems of our digital friendships. Too much about how we work when no one is watching, the naps mid-spreadsheet, the pasta at 10. Too much about what we don’t know.
And as we have learned these things, a name has appeared to describe each one, the word acting as a handy pin with which to tack it to the wall so that we can stand back and look at the feeling properly.
The latest “Covid buzzword” describes “a sense of stagnation and emptiness”, a fogginess to one’s vision, a dulling. If, “flourishing is the peak of wellbeing,” writes organisational psychologist Adam Grant in the New York Times, and, “depression is the valley of ill-being,” then “the neglected middle child of mental health” is a state called “languishing”. Which actually I love. I love it.
I love it not just for its accuracy, its dead-on truth in articulating this no man’s land of emotion, where months of fear and uncertainty have led to routines based in dark-blue dread, where we no longer see the point in adding salt to a soup, and are yet to get through an entire film without looking at our phone. No, I love it also for its realistic glamour. To “languish” in 2021 is not just to sit slumped in between feelings, it is to dance through them, backwards in heels. We have dabbled with depression and found it wanting, and having had a brief taste of joy, decided it was too sugary, too rich.
So here we are, languishing like unmarried women in A-level novels. Loungewear is our uniform, a T-shirt we received at a team-building exercise in 1998, leggings so threadbare one could perform a successful smear test without taking them off, a retired bra, good socks. Standing up is performative, moving at any pace beyond that of a dragged sofa is pretentious. We are condescending about the washing, we are tearful at the bad tea, we want to socialise, but wordlessly, ideally with eyes shut. There are moments of laughter, of course, hollow laughter. There are long periods of calm. We have meaningful, silent conversations with the Netflix screen that asks blackly if we’re still watching. Are we? Have we ever?
It’s not ideal, I’ll admit – it would take a better-educated person than me to argue that this languishing life, of sloth and snippiness, is superior to one centred in a sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others, but it is acceptable, and it is inevitable. Quite aside from the toll the pandemic has taken on the poor sods of our souls, these never-ending afternoons where we must walk softly on the broken shells of our old lives, we the languid are reacting to a decade of being told to strive for a state of “wellness”.
I write about wellness often and I think about it even more, when, for example, I’m confronted by an anti-vaxxer’s yogic tweet, or when I’m standing by a mirror frozen in the question of whether to apply face oil first or last. As an industry it is vast and wet, with many tentacles, and has promised those that buy its juices a fantasy of flourishment. Except, the more you buy the further away it seems, a mirage of fulfilment and constant satisfaction, and when the juice has passed through your body you once again find yourself flung back into a low-slung chair, languishing.
So the concept, I love. The idea of a liminal space in which to feel weird and sad, and slightly mad, I adore and identify with. The medicalised labelling of this feeling so many of us are feeling for so many obvious reasons, it pleases me less. There is an impulse to name these mental states, yes, but is it helpful to define them all on a spectrum of mental illness? Is it helpful to frame languishing as the little sister of depression?
I prefer to think of it more simply as the specific feeling of being here, right now, today, washed up on the shore of a pandemic, the weather unpredictable, the eight records, one book and one luxury item we’d chosen to bring now sodden, scratched and all wrong, but in the distance, a boat.