For the past two weeks, this space has been (rightly) focused on the ongoing racial reckoning in the US. From recent police shootings (plural!) of Black Americans to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the nation’s attention has been riveted on the racial divide in this country and most pointedly on the relationship between law enforcement and people of color. This epidemic of violence fostered by pervasive systemic racism continues to plague us, even as the coronavirus pandemic in the US begins ever so slowly to recede from the forefront of public consciousness.
(Tragically, this is not the case in Central Asia, India’s current Covid spike has been called apocalyptic; and I spoke by phone earlier today with Pakistani colleagues who are deeply troubled about the Covid future in their country.)
But as we in the US emerge from a year-long exile from “normalcy,” I am mindful that not only our physical health (continuing symptoms among long-term Covid sufferers, called “long haulers”), but our emotional wounds from the pandemic may take more time to heal than we imagine. There is a certain listlessness, procrastination, even cognitive fogginess that has seeped into our corporate psyche as we continue to experience the pandemic’s impact day after endless day. So it was with some relief that I discovered an article by Wharton’s Adam Grant that identifies this feeling as a recognized mental health condition, called languishing.
That’s it, I thought! Languishing is an emotional state that lies midway between depression and flourishing: not at the point of profound anxiety—although sometimes the headlines about the pandemic or the economy or another mass shooting or police killing of a Black person does push in that direction; but also, nowhere near the point of a “conquer the world” sense of flourishing that is so important for a positive, productive life.
It is helpful to know that this is not some imagined condition (on a concrete, personal note: last week, I totally missed my grandson’s thirteenth birthday—how could I do that? I reassure myself—I am “languishing”). To actually name this condition is a helpful first step in finding relief from it. Knowing that others also experience it gives me permission to understand that I am not alone and help is out there to assist me on my journey towards flourishing.
But in rethinking this “condition,” I became uneasy and began to realize that the ability to analyze this experience points yet again to my privilege as a white man in twenty-first century America. Really, who has the leisure time to identify the emotional baggage that leads to languishing? People of color and poor people have so much more profound issues to deal with– suffering through the death of a loved one stricken by Covid-19 or the loss of a job or having to balance educating young children at home while still holding down a job, or having kids crawling the walls of a small apartment, desperate to visit their friends. I did not lose my business, nor do I live in inadequate housing that now must double as a school and an office.
After my initial sense of solidarity with millions of others who feel their spirits languish in these times, I am mindful of countless others who have been totally consumed by grief and loss and are completely overwhelmed by pandemic pressures that they are, quite literally, at their wits’ end. Once again, the divide in our society rears its ugly head. In this endless pandemic, I empathize with brothers and sisters who suffer from languishing. But in so doing, I am reminded once again of the divide in our society—and how much more this pandemic has impacted some. It is just another example of how white privilege contributes to a whole series of divides in our society.