“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” reads a Monday New York Times headline. My immediate response when I read it this morning was: How do you know what I’m feeling?
In any given day, I can (and often do) experience several emotions. Generally, I wake up in a good mood because I haven’t yet discovered the specific things that are going to irritate me. I’m looking forward to coffee and the silly little granola bar I’m going to have for breakfast. If I have a piece to work on, I’ll probably enter my grumpy hours because writing is usually misery. Unless something really great happens to me, somewhere between 3 and 4 p.m. is usually what my friend Shayla has termed “peak despair,” the point at which it seems as though one has exhausted the possibilities for the day. Then as it gets closer to 6 p.m. another pleasant mood washes over me because it’s almost time to cook and eat dinner, and maybe have a glass of wine. Then night falls and I wonder why there are so many hours in a single day and what I’m expected to do with them. And then it’s time for bed.
During the pandemic there have been periods of time when “peak despair” takes up most of the day, while there have been other stretches where I’m keeping busy and don’t spend as much time dwelling on the state of the world or my particular existential crises. I suspect other people’s depressive or anxious episodes don’t align perfectly with my own, which is partly why I often find it so irritating to be diagnosed en masse by mainstream media outlets.
Service journalists have been eager to label what people have been experiencing during the pandemic in sweeping, definitive statements. “The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” the Harvard Business Review informed me last May. That same month outlets began latching onto “pandemic fatigue,” a term used to describe people’s sheer exhaustion at having to deal with the pandemic for several months. Earlier this year, outlets described Americans as hitting a collective “pandemic wall,” though—perhaps illustrating the absurdity of making such an absolute declaration under the circumstances—stories about the so-called pandemic wall seemed to appear anew almost every few weeks. Now I’m often told that the pandemic has made me “socially awkward” and I’ve been given instructions for how to soothe my “re-entry anxiety” as the world opens back up again.
And, on Monday, as I mentioned, the Times insisted that the name for what I’m supposedly feeling at this moment is “languishing.” It’s different than burnout and not quite depression, psychologist Adam Grant explained in the piece. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” he wrote. “And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
As Grant points out, there’s certainly value in having the right words to describe how we feel. And I don’t deny that there may be some commonalities in the emotions we’ve experienced during the pandemic and the simultaneity of some of them. But there is something patronizing about being spoken to this way, as well as inescapably imprecise.
Living through a pandemic can give one a sense of everyone being in the same boat, but the reality is that the hardships—psychological and otherwise—have not been shared equally. Nurses working at the epicenter of the virus in March and April of last year, for example, likely hit their respective “pandemic walls” way before the rest of us. And so inevitably these publications end up talking to a relatively well-off slice of the country that has spent the better part of the pandemic in relative safety and comfort.
Perhaps this is all a bit pedantic—but it’s just how I feel.