Languishing: the malaise of our pandemic times

Our journey through this pandemic is unprecedented in modern times.

image: NBC News

We won’t know what the exact effects of the pandemic will be until it’s over.

Meanwhile, psychologists suggest that if we can find words that describe how we feel now it helps us cope; words like “grief” and “languishing.”

I thought it might be helpful if I could find the expanded use of commons words during the last pandemic of 1918. But I couldn’t.

Instead, I did find some technical terms in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic. We know that fifty million people died globally in four waves during the pandemic. And, similar to this third wave of this COVID pandemic, it hit young people hard. Many died within three days of showing symptoms.

One diagnosis from the Spanish flu pandemic was “encephalitis lethargica.” It was characterized by excessive sleepiness, abnormal eye movements, fever, and movement disorders, although virtually no neurological sign or symptom could be found. The chronic phase was characterized by Parkinson-like signs that could last months, even a year, after the pandemic ended.

“Grief” is one of those words for which the meaning can be expanded to describe the way we now feel. One dictionary meaning is: “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” But more recently, the definition of grief has been expanded to mean “mourning the loss of normalcy.” Psychologist Adam Grant says that the expanded meaning of grief gives a sense of familiarity:

“[The expanded meaning of grief] gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience. Although we hadn’t faced a pandemic before, most of us had faced loss. It helped us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience — and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity (New York Times, May 4).”

Languishing is another useful word. Dictionary meanings include: to be or become feeble, weak, as in Plants languish in the drought. Adam Grant expands the definition:

“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Languishing is the “blah” feeling we have during the pandemic.

I originally read Adam Grant’s column in the New York Times after my cousin sent me a link. She added: “I think these days I’m languishing. Seems I’m putting in time until we can travel and see people again. Melancholy isn’t the right word.”

Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of your drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.

If this pandemic is like the last, we will experience depression and anxiety disorders for years, even if we aren’t suffering from symptoms today.

Where the heck is Kenosha and why does it matter?

 

Hardly anyone outside of Wisconsin had ever heard of Kenosha before a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by a policeman two weeks ago. The policeman, Rusten Sheskey, a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha Police Department, held Blake’s shirt as he shot Blake in the back seven times while Blake’s children waited in the car.

image: politico.com

I had heard of Kenosha only because I had just finished reading a feature-length article in Harper’s magazine about how Kenosha county where, after having supported Democrats in almost every election for almost every office for forty-four straight years, voters had swung to President Trump in 2016.

Kenosha is critical in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. As Kenosha goes, so does the country. Democrats have to take back Kenosha and nearby Racine to take Wisconsin. And they have to win Wisconsin to beat Trump nationally. No wonder it’s called “the tipping-point state.”

Wisconsin, before voting Trump, would have seemed familiar to Canadians. In his article for Harper’s, James Pogue says: “Wisconsin had a homegrown tradition of political congeniality and soft egalitarianism that traced its origins to the days of Robert La Follette and the Progressives.”

Similar to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which the continent’s oldest community-owned professional sports franchise outside baseball, Wisconsin’s Green Bay Packers are the only publicly-owned, not-for-profit, major league professional team in the United States.

Why would a state, so seemingly familiar to Canadians, vote for someone that Canadians generally despise?

The answer is multi-faceted: dwindling union solidarity led to less involvement in the community and a diminished sense of pulling together; betrayal on the part of the Democratic Party; and a fading vision of the American Dream that promised opportunity.

Wisconsinites became disillusioned when both major parties agreed that what was good for the boardroom was good for America. The union jobs of Wisconsin, with the highest wages in America and therefore in the world, went south to states with right-to-work laws and weak unions.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement over the desperate opposition of labour groups and Midwestern Democrats. House majority leader Dick Gephardt called the treaty “a threat to our wages and our standard of living.”

President Obama, who had won industrial counties in Wisconsin by margins that Democrats hadn’t achieved in a generation, promised to expand labour’s organizing power with the Employee Free Choice Act. It was never passed.

Disillusioned, Wisconsinites looked for anyone outside the mainstream. Congressman Mark Pocan told James Pogue: “People thought at first, ‘Oh he’s going to fight China, this’ll help.’  Folks are realizing that no matter how much they thought that Trump was going to support them, it hasn’t turned out better.”

Now Kenosha is the focus of racial tension. Parts of the state are harshly segregated. According to one analysis of recent census data, the quality of life for black residents in Milwaukee and Racine is among the worst in the country.

Supporters of Black Lives Matter and armed young men descended on Kenosha on August 25 in what Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth described a “chaotic, high-stress scene, with lots of radio traffic and people screaming, chanting and running.”

In the mayhem, a Trump supporter, a white 17-year-old with an assault rifle from Illinois, killed two protesters and wounded a third.

President Trump defended the young killer on Monday, illogically claiming that he was acting in self-defense when unarmed protesters confronted the shooter.

Kenosha, a small city the size of Kamloops, will loom large in the upcoming presidential elections on November 3.