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A GREAT CONVERSATION IN TIMES OF LANGUISHING

Updated: Feb 1, 2022



On the evening of Sunday, June 27 2021, the President of the Republic of South Africa announced putting the country on lockdown alert level four. Since the advent of covid-19 on the borders of South Africa in March 2020, the government has oscillated between levels of lockdowns, including the most severe level five. South Africa operates on five levels of such lockdowns; level one is the least restrictive. The restrictions get more potent as the lockdown levels ascend. The latest announcement of alert level four has left me in a state of general lethargy. I have had a lot of work to get through, with more time due to the lockdown, yet I cannot find the energy to do them. I am wondering whether this is an experience unique to me. How are you doing under the latest lockdown announcement?


I am aware that it is not just the announcement of lockdown affecting my life at the moment. I am the confluence of multiple adversities. My dad is recovering from a bacterial infection at a time when the third wave of covid-19 is raging. The third wave of covid-19 is more severe than the previous two, infecting more people and claiming many lives. I recently wrote about the number of death notices rampant on social media platforms. There is data reflecting on the socio-economic impact of covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns. This reflection will not add to that but reflect on what might be happening to me as I navigate this prevailing lethargy. All the adversities facing us now remind me of Christopher Fry's invocation in 'Asleep of prisoners' that:

our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere, Never to leave us till we take The longest stride of soul we ever took. (1953, p. 49)

Is this feeling resulting from feeling overwhelmed by 'wrong coming to face us'? Is this the feeling consequent of freezing under imminent peril? In his April 19, 2021, New York Times article, organisational psychologist Adam Grant suggested naming this experience languishing. Adam Grant, the author of "Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know" and the host of the TED podcast WorkLife, acknowledges that he borrows the term languishing from the work of Corey Keys (2002). Keyes' 2002 seminal exploration of the mental health continuum swung between depression on the one hand and flourishing on the other. Keyes named the middle space where a person is neither in mental ill-being nor in mental wellbeing, languishing. Mental health, according to Keyes, is characterised by positive functioning consisting of six dimensions of psychological wellbeing, thus self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy. More to psychological wellbeing is social wellbeing. Keyes proposed five dimensions of support and social networks: social coherence, social actualisation, social integration, social acceptance, and social contribution. Mental illness is the extended absence of mental health as described here. Apart from mental illness and mental health that usually are vast experiences, the state of languishing can seem like what James Hollis (1996) calls swamplands of the soul. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) refers to the miserly experience as deadening neutrality.

According to James Hollis (2018), in the swamplands, we feel overwhelmed, battered, lost of purpose, and dismal. Estes (1992, p. 314) describes these desert wastelands as leaving more unfinished needlework projects, never-realised flower beds, and hikes took. Additionally, notes never written to say 'I care', foreign language never learned, music lessons abandoned, and left hanging on the loom waiting and waiting. I am aware that my experience of lethargy may seem transitory. I consider that while I am not dismissing what might be presenting as a blank page, clear canvas and awaiting dance floor, pregnant with enormous potential for what could emerge. I do not want to go too far in asserting that I am currently living with mental illness. I am aware of the temporally, at least for now, lethargy. Languishing, Grant (2021) writes, dulls motivation, disrupts focus, tripling the odds for abandoning tasks. According to Grant (2021) and Keyes (2002), languishing is more common than depression and flourishing.

What's one to do when languishing dulls their ability even to recognise that they are in a dismal place with numbed emotions, delight and motivation? As languishing takes over our lives, the gremlins of fear and lethargy, the two constant companions of our lives, according to Hollis (2020, 2018), become more pronounced. "Fear and lethargy are always with us any given day; they're the enemies of life. And no matter what I do today, they'll be there again tomorrow" (Hollis, 2018, 32:15). In his conversation with Tami Simon, Hollis suggested that what one could do with swamplands is to hang on and dig through. He quotes Carl Jung saying, "The spirit of evil negates the life force by fear. And only boldness can deliver us from fear. And if a person does not take the risk, the meaning of life is violated."


It is well and good to hang on and keep walking. What tools might be helpful in the swamplands, in the anguish of languishing? Broadly, Grant (2021) proposes entering into 'flow', the state of absorption in a significant endeavour or a short bond, when a sense of time, place, and self disappears. To enter into a flow, one must step into particular activities. Estes (1992) and Hollis (1996) invites us to create. Creating is how we engage with our innate imagination to manifest our ideas in the world. Creating may not mean becoming Picazzo and producing masterpieces. This creativity is less about the product and more about the engagement with the process of imaginings. I depart from Grant when he suggests that solitude is not a healthy way of living through languishing.

In contrast, solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude can be intentional isolation to pay attention to the summons of the soul. Because our culture's answer to the existential anxiety of being human is a distraction, according to Hollis, we need to break away from the constant distraction of entertainment. "If you're distracted, we'll keep you entertained or diverted in some way until someday, you realise: you know, that was your life, that was your life" (Hollis, 2018, 30:31). Creating is not entertainment, and it is not an escape from the misery of one's existence. And that is why creating requires enough solitude. We birth poetry, clear narratives, songs and music, handworks, and fruitful relationships in solitude. This article is an example of creativity. I have written it as a form of engaging with my prevailing wasteland in the last few days. The work of our hands and our imaginations can show in multiple settings.

While I like to write when living through languishing, some people benefit from entering a conversation with themselves and others. A conversation akin to therapy helps a person hold together the fragments of their existence while deconstructing their narrative and their previous constructions of meaning and understanding. In the context of a therapeutic encounter, a person can begin to move towards an emerging new reality. Because our society is moving so fast, people tend not to have time for great conversations. We are so preoccupied with mass production that we have no patience for conversations that produce nothing. Creating is how we engage in an extraordinary reckoning with ourselves first and, following that, with the world. A great conversation is one, according to Jonh O'Donohue, Irish poet, theologian and philosopher,


"in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plain, and then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards" (2007, p. 6).

Along with creating, one can choose to read challenging material that engages all your faculties. While this may appear complicated initially, reading can disengage with surface struggles with life and enter a deep space of our imagination we may have forgotten it exists. I have enjoyed reading Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners in my days of languishing. The poetry and potency in it have been enthralling. Sticking to the difficulty of the text has been rewarding. Again, reading is a way of entering into a conversation with oneself in the dialogues created by others. The author, in a mysterious way, is engaged with the reader's imagination. What literature have you wanted to read for a while? Perhaps this is the time to dig into it.

In conclusion, I propose that as we live through in-between times, the languishing can feel excruciating. The languishing can feel unbearable, pushing us to endless entertainment and comfort substance use and perhaps infinite despair. What if the antidote to languishing is creating, manifesting our ideas, whatever they may be, by entering into a great conversation with ourselves? What if the lethargy and dread I am feeling now are inviting me to explore other identities that exist within my psyche? What if the summons to yourself has waited for this swampland to be heard and taken seriously? I might be ready for the great conversation with myself and perhaps with another person, but people around me are too busy surviving and negotiating their wastelands too. I suggest that you could visit a psychotherapist who might have the time and space to hold you as you navigate the swamplands of the languish.


The human heart can go the lengths of God

Dark and cold we may be, but this

Is no winter now. The frozen misery

Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;

The thunder is the thunder of the floes,

The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise is exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake…

But will you wake, for pity's sake? [Meadows in A sleep of prisoners, Fry, 1953, p. 29]


References

Estes, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman. London, Ballantine.

Fry, C. (1953). A sleep of prisoners. Dramatists Play Service, Inc.

Grant, A. (2021). There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

Hollis, J. (1996). Swampland of the soul. Toronto: Inner City Books, 75, 75.

Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of health and social behaviour, 207-222.

O'Donohue, J. (2007). The inner landscape of beauty. On Being.

Simon, T.(Host). (2018, February 27). James Hollis: A Summons To A Deeper Life [Audio podcast episode]. In Insights at the Edge. Sounds True. URL https://www.resources.soundstrue.com/podcast/james-hollis-a-summons-to-a-deeper-life/

Simon, T.(Host). (2020, June 9). James Hollis: The Goal of Life Is Meaning, Not Happiness [Audio podcast episode]. In Insights at the Edge. Sounds True. URL https://resources.soundstrue.com/transcript/james-hollis-a-summons-to-a-deeper-life/

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