Organizational psychologist Adam Grant took to the New York Times last month to diagnose my problem – and maybe yours.
“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,” he wrote.
Languishing. That has been my state of being since the pandemic migrated – at least in my consciousness – from “new and terrifying” to “routine and terrifying.” Up until the middle of April 2020, I had been reading novel after novel – “The Dutch House,” “Trust Exercise,” “Lost Children Archive,” “The Nickel Boys” – anything I could get my hands on at the local library. I was doing yoga regularly (not, admittedly, out of enjoyment but because I like being able to walk up stairs without fear of pulling a hamstring). I had even stretched Dry January well into spring just because going beerless dramatically improved my sleep.
In short, I was doing myself – and my future self – a whole bunch of solids. I was healthy, rested, and creatively stimulated. Then, as the pandemic days began to pile up, I started languishing.
I haven’t read much fiction over the past year. My yoga mat is perpetually furled. Restorative rest has been sidelined by evening IPA. I had even begun to ignore an earnest warning from my friend and longtime newspaper colleague Ralph Jimenez: “Never lose your sense of outrage.” I did avoid losing it completely – thanks in large part to the state lawmakers behind gems like House Bill 544 on teaching “divisive concepts” and a new budgetary attack on Planned Parenthood, as well as the sustained misanthropy of Tucker Carlson and his congressional minions – but it was touch and go for a little while.
It all came to a head on Saturday. After the weekly dump run and the first lawn mowing of the season, I sat on the couch to further refine my languishing skills by watching day three of the NFL draft. Yes, day three. Somewhere around pick 200, it occurred to me that my favorite spot in the house was beginning to feel like some kind of rock bottom. I needed to get out of the house, get into the truck, and drive. But I needed a reason, otherwise I would just be languishing in motion.
“I think we need a fire pit,” I said.
My wife, sitting on the far side of the sectional couch, slowly lowered her Kindle and glanced at me over her reading glasses. “A what?”
I understood the confusion. In our nearly 20 years of marriage, I had never once uttered – or even thought to utter – that phrase. To be honest, I was a little confused myself. It felt as if the idea and the utterance occurred simultaneously. But not long after a short negotiation with a weary woman reached its triumphant conclusion, I was sliding a 90-pound fire pit (that doubles as a charcoal grill!) into the bed of my truck.
Late the next morning, after carrying all of the parts and hardware to the river’s edge, I began to put it all together. I’m always good for a few mistakes during assembly, but even after redoing some of the labor I was still finished around lunchtime. And by 5, I was watching wood smoke disappear into a partly cloudy sky. To my left sat my daughters; to my right, my wife. The four of us, best friends and partners in pandemic survival, blissfully floating a million miles above rock bottom.
I have a stack of books I haven’t read, including “Hadji Murat,” which is Tolstoy’s final work, and “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. The yoga mat is calling, but basketball sounds more fun – and there’s a great little court in a park just down the road. I’ll be honest: I love beer. But I could really use a good night’s sleep, so maybe I’ll save the IPA for special occasions, like sitting around a fire pit, with people I love, on a slightly cool spring evening – languishing no more.