Rev. Fiona Heath Presented May 2nd, 2021 on Zoom
Some of you may be aware that social media has popularized the term languishing to describe how we are feeling during this pandemic.
When I hear the term languishing I think of upper class Victorian women trapped in too tight corsets and crushing social norms who can’t breathe and so spend much of their time languidly lying on green velvet couches.
Which is really kind of fitting for right now – trapped as we are in too tight homes and a crushing pandemic that takes our breath away so we spend a lot of time languidly lying on couches watching Netflix.
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. Of walking through molasses.
This isn’t burnout or depression but a kind of medium state of feeling a little lost. We aren’t sunk into depression but we aren’t flourishing either. We function but not at full capacity. Our concentration wanders.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything.
Languishing is a normal human condition – after experiencing a loss, a huge change, or a global pandemic – there are the initial intense feelings of grief, fear, and anxiety. Psychologist Adam Grant says the early acute state of anguish gives way to this more chronic condition of languish.
Early Christianity called it acedia (a-seedia), a state of listlessness and apathy.
Acedia was of great concern among the North African desert monastic communities – where the solitary nature of the monks’ existence made experiencing acedia common and it could lead monks to abandon their religious vows.
In the early fifth century the monk Cassian wrote that a mind seized by this emotion is disgusted with his room… and can not stay still in his cell nor devote himself to his devotions. He glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. And he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.
Under lock down orders – so many of us solitary – days blurring together– it’s no wonder we may suffer at times from acedia or languishing – we are all inadvertent monks.
Especially now, when we were just getting a bit of hope, with vaccines being rolled out and stores re-opening, our souls were starting to expand out into the world seeking new experiences and old friends. And then the variants came and we have had to shrink back down into our monastic cells and go back to waiting a little longer.
Sick of our homes and sighing because no one ever visits and that stupid sun that takes forever to set.
One of the concerns about feeling this way is that over time we can slip down into a more serious depression. So it’s important to check in with ourselves and name our feelings.
When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and shared.
As people of the chalice our fourth principle calls us to search for truth and meaning, and that includes our inner truth. So for those of you who are languishing – give yourself permission to name these feelings when asked “how are you?”
And you may hear “me too” in response.
Naming how we are feeling, sharing it, reminds us we are not alone in this condition.
Languishing is normal – there isn’t anything wrong in experiencing it. You are not failing at life. Most people experience it at some point or often multiple times in their lives. The apathy and slowness are normal. It’s okay to feel this way.
I think languishing happens when the way forward is not yet clear. Something is gone and the next thing is not yet here.
So let yourself languish.
Let yourself go at the pace of your spirit. And keep looking for what pulls you forward.
The early monks fought acedia through praying, crying and simply enduring it until it let up. And while we are all enduring and I know I have done my share of crying and possibly praying if praying looks a lot like swearing… we have other options when it gets too much.
We have the example of languishing Victorian ladies who loosened the corsets and took up bicycling.
Finding small goals and creative activities helps. Getting lost in the flow – that state of absorption in a particular moment or meaningful challenge – helps.
TV binges where you get absorbed in the story and care about the characters. Baking or knitting or building something pulls you out of yourself into the creative process. A long bike ride engages your mind and body.
The experience of creative flow pulls you out of yourself into the beauty of life. Recharges your spirit.
Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor (At the Altar of the World) calls these flow experiences answers to the question “What is saving your life right now?”. Taylor says her life depends on engaging in the ordinary acts of living with great attention. They open her up and pull her out of herself into the flow.
I’d like you to think about that state of flow in your own life. What is saving your life right now? Is it a chat with an old friend or the blossoms on a cherry tree? What is affirming and alive?
While languishing is regarded as a painful way of being to be endured, a state that we should seek to end as quickly as possible, I am not sure it is so problematic. It’s a normal ordinary human condition – being in the middle between flourishing and devastated. And I believe it brings its own gifts to us.
And as UUs we try to embrace being human with all its ups and downs. None of our emotions are bad, they all tell us something.
Languishing tells us we are in an in-between time, a pause, a stillness. What comes next has not yet arrived. We are all waiting for the post pandemic normal.
Writer Katherine May uses the term wintering – a time when everything feels off and life is a struggle.
I like the idea of the soul wintering because it is such a natural state – winter arrives even when we don’t want it too, and it can be bleak and harsh, but also has its own joys.
The crisp beauty of cold, the paring back to essentials – the welcoming dark that encourages sleep and rest and quiet. Winter has a slowness that has its own power.
If we think of languishing as wintering – a season to journey through – then we can appreciate its strengths, find its gifts for us.
We don’t have to fight it, condemning ourselves for how we feel, but accept it, knowing that spring never fails to arrive.
Wintering’s slowness and solitude lets us pay attention to our spirits and the world around us. Gives us space to see the small things that can save us. Gives us time to get absorbed into creative flow.
Over the months I was away I was languishing and wintering but spring came and I was renewed. My soul began to unfurl like a fern towards the light. Not by any one big thing but by many little things – baking bread, walking in the woods, watching flames flicker, writing and wondering.
All small good things.
Winter is always followed by spring. We will get there eventually.
I want to share a story about a small good thing.
Last April during the first shutdown in England there is an older man living in an apartment near a canal. A duck arrives one day and decides to nest on his balcony in his fuschia plant. Which happens to be on the nineth floor. Pretty high up from the canal.
But the duck – who he names Mrs. Mallard – decides the balcony is the place to build her nest and lay her eggs. It turns out she is a smart duck as the man is a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
He is delighted she has chosen his balcony. He is retired, stuck at home and has time.
So he – the Duck Protector – rearranges planters on the balcony to keep her safe. He seals up gaps at the bottom of the railing that might allow a duckling to fall. He pins old maps on his balcony windows so that he doesn’t disturb her when he walks about his living room.
The Duck Protector makes a plan for when the ducklings hatch as they can’t safely get to the canal on their own. He changes his sleep habits so that he will be awake for the early morning hatching.
The day comes last May when the eggs hatch and seven ducklings appear. When Mrs. Mallard is ready, the man puts the babies in a bucket and carefully lowers the bucket by a very long rope nine floors down the side of the building.
Then he races down to get them out of the bucket so they can follow Mrs. Mallard safely into the canal. Which they do.
Imagine rearranging your life to protect one mother duck. It is so lovely and kind. And brought the Duck Protector great joy.
And this year, another year into the pandemic, Mrs. Mallard is back and there are eleven eggs waiting to hatch. The ducklings should appear this week and you can follow #operationmallard on twitter.
This is a small story but it speaks to the beauty of bringing your caring attention to the world. Marvellous life continues on even amidst the horrors of the pandemic.
And this is a gift – the gift of life – of spring returning – that no matter what the winter has done – we can return to the glorious aliveness of life.
When we are ready, spring is offering us goldfinches and cherry blossoms, tomato seedlings and ducklings. Our spirits unfurl and spring welcomes us in.
The pandemic will end, not soon enough, and not without losses,
But the world will open up again.
If you are languishing it is okay. Winter is just hanging on a little long. Just keep naming it and caring for yourself and find ways to get absorbed into the world – through music or baking or taking care of a duck.
It is just a season. Spring will return to your spirit. The pandemic will end.
Life remains good.
So Say We All.