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.

7 thoughts on “Privileged Languishing

  1. Hmmmmmm….. I might have to disagree with you again on this one! Yes, white privilege exists, but… the languishing and the suffering are not divided cleanly along such lines. I think about all my fellow mom friends (of multiple ethnicities) and what we are juggling, and what we have lost as we have stepped into ever more demanding roles at home. (There have been things gained, but a lot of things lost.) I think about the many many healthcare workers who have been extremely overwhelmed working overtime, missing their families, sleeping in their cars so they don’t get their loved ones sick. They are from all walks of life. I think about my former neighbors who lived across the street from me. A young man in his mid-40s who died from Covid leaving behind two little girls, who despite their loss still went on their front porch and cheered for the health care workers in the evenings. I think about the boy I babysat for decades ago who died at the young age of 30, early on. His parents and his young widow gutted by their loss. Kids have taken their own lives in New Mexico and Texas and all across the country because of the forced social isolation. (All of these are stories of white people.) I know communities of color have suffered more greatly statistically, but I don’t think the suffering–or the languishing for that matter–is merely a function of race or privilege. We are living through trauma. And we need to hold space for the fact that each of us is suffering in unique and collective ways, if we are ever going to heal.

  2. Happy 13th birthday to your grandson!! I think I may have met him once.
    Well now, you know that birthday greeting actually makes me feel better. My sloth and acedia and languishing have been wearing me out and now they have lifted a bit! Thanks Bob,

  3. In residence with recent headlines about the pandemic-related phenomenom of “languishing” are reports of the startling compensation gap between CEO’s and the typical U.S worker, with the former’s earnings running 320 times that of the latter. That “320” is not a typo — CEO’s at the top 350 U.S. firms each garnered about $21 million-plus in overall compensation in 2020.

    This writer’s wage in 2020? It languished at $14.75 per hour.

    According to the Economics Policy Institute, CEOs are making more — around six times as much — as other very high earners. Those very high earners? We’re talking about wage earners in the top 0.1%.

    Here’s how the April 24 edition of The New York Times framed the news:

    “The divergent fortunes of C.E.O.s and everyday workers illustrate the sharp divides in a nation on the precipice of an economic boom but still racked by steep income inequality. The stock markets are up and the wealthy are spending freely, but millions are still facing significant hardship. Executives are minting fortunes while laid-off workers line up at food banks.”

    Mind you, that information came across the transom just four days ago.

    Economic divide is the boardroom whisper keeping racism and classism alive and well in the U.S.

  4. A friend of mine and I were talking about it and then you named it for us – languishing. It was very helpful! And I am also grateful that you looked at the bigger picture and reminded me of what I could have too easily forgotten – my white privilege. Your insights are always so helpful, Bob. Thank you. Pat

  5. Languishing.. Makes me think of the image of privileged southern Whites fanning themselves on the porch, complaining about the heat as they sip mint juleps in the afternoon.. Actually, I have considered this race/class difference so so many times during this strange pandemic time. I am so very grateful that my family and close friends are, for the most part, well and vaccinated – if a bit frustrated – but my gratitude and joy are tempered by the sobering images of flames from improvised funeral pyres in India. It’s a strange, strange time, to be sure. 😶🙏

    1. From the VA Blue Water Navy support website: “Somebody asked me what am I going to do when I make it to the top. I said reach my hand back down for the rest.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.