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Are We Languishing in Limbo?

Anne Gordon Perry | Aug 5, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Anne Gordon Perry | Aug 5, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Health experts have recently adopted a new name for the various states and moods the pandemic has brought about: “languishing.” 

While some experts broadly define “languishing” as the gamut of pandemic-related or -induced emotions such as grief, depression, trauma, emptiness, lack of motivation, boredom, fear, feeling “stuck,” or feeling burnt out, others define it more narrowly as a sense of apathy, restlessness, uncertainty, and unsettlement.  

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According to an article in the New York Times on May 5, 2021, the term was coined by Corey Keyes, a sociologist who noticed that although a vast number of people weren’t depressed, they also weren’t thriving. To Keyes, “languishing” is not depression or sadness, but rather the absence of feeling good about one’s life: the lack of a sense of meaning, purpose, or belonging.

In French, this state of being is called ennui — “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

“Languishing” is a poetic word choice for me, reminiscent of a melancholy sigh in an old romantic tale. But for many, the condition it represents is all too real. Even though 2021 brought the COVID-19 vaccines, and some countries have opened up or even returned to “normal,” we still collectively seem to feel a sense of waiting — of not having control over what the future might bring.

So, what can we do if we feel ourselves languishing? First, we can realize that we are not alone. The worldwide impact of COVID-19 caused great and sometimes catastrophic changes to many lives. It also brought into stark relief the injustices of our world and the intractability of our common problems. The daily news reminds us that we live in a time of high stress, confusion, violence, and uncertainty. 

As an antidote to languishing, we might practice feeling grateful for what we can be thankful for and what we can control: for the vaccine, for new avenues of learning, and for new ways of thinking about reality and our priorities. We might pursue things we enjoy, find new hobbies, maintain a routine, or notice nature more. We might use art as therapy and set goals for creative actualization. We might connect with friends in meaningful ways and participate in Zoom events with like-minded people … or even with unlike-minded people, with the goal of learning about other viewpoints! We might also watch uplifting films such as Pixar’s “Soul,” which advocates adopting an ability to “flow.”

Most importantly, we might embrace a lifestyle of less materialism and more spirituality, cultivating resilience in times of hardship, developing a regular practice of prayer and meditation, and fostering a perspective of hope for the transformation of humankind. 

Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, compared God to a wise physician. He wrote:

We can well perceive how the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions. We see it languishing on its bed of sickness, sore-tried and disillusioned. They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and infallible Physician .… They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy. Incline your ears to the sweet melody of this Prisoner .… The Hand of Divine bounty proffereth unto you the Water of Life. Hasten and drink your fill. 

Spiritual empowerment, then, can provide a remedy for the condition of languishing. It invites us to turn to and partake of a spiritual elixir that can revive and heal us. In another context, Baha’u’llah said that those who have: 

… failed to seek from the luminous and crystal Springs of divine knowledge the inner meaning of God’s holy words, they therefore have languished, stricken and sore athirst, in the vale of idle fancy and waywardness. They have strayed far from the fresh and thirst-subduing waters, and gathered round the salt that burneth bitterly.

This passage suggests that an active desire to understand inner meaning could overcome the malady that afflicts those who renounce spiritual truth. In other passages, the Baha’i writings clarify that spiritual truth is accessible to all who pursue it — regardless of their educational, economic, or cultural backgrounds.   

Baha’u’llah also voices this hope, that those who: 

… languish in the wastes of separation be led unto the home of eternal reunion. Thus the mists of error may be dispelled, and the all-resplendent light of divine guidance dawn forth above the horizon of human hearts.

Anyone who feels isolated might be especially heartened by this passage from the Baha’i writings, which reminds us that our connection to God is eternal and offers a sustained relationship like none other, with guidance that helps us navigate life in a transformative way. 

Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and the designated interpreter of his teachings, explained that religion, our source of spiritual truth, must be renewed with the guidance needed for that moment in history, just like the seasons: 

That soul-stirring springtime then gives rise to the fruitful summer. The Word of God is proclaimed, His Law is promulgated, and all things reach a state of perfection. The heavenly table is spread …

When that Sun reaches its zenith it begins to decline, and that summer season of the spirit is followed by autumn. Growth and development are arrested; soft breezes turn into blighting winds; and the season of dearth and want dissipates the vitality and beauty of the gardens … spiritual attractions vanish, divine qualities decay, the radiance of the hearts is dimmed, the spirituality of the souls is dulled, virtues become vices, and sanctity and purity are no more. Of the law of God naught remains but a name, and of the divine teachings naught but an outward form. The foundations of the religion of God are destroyed and annihilated, mere customs and traditions take their place, divisions appear, and steadfastness is changed into perplexity. Spirits die away, hearts wither, and souls languish. 

Winter arrives — that is, the chill of ignorance and unawareness envelops the world, and the darkness of wayward and selfish desires prevails. Apathy and defiance ensue … When, however, the winter season has run its course, the spiritual springtime returns again and a new cycle reveals its splendour. The breezes of the spirit blow, the radiant morn breaks, the clouds of the Merciful rain down, the rays of the Sun of Truth shine forth, and the world of being is invested with a new life and arrayed in a wondrous robe. All the signs and bestowals of the former springtime, and perhaps even greater ones, reappear in this new season.

RELATED: Is Caring For Your Mental Health a Spiritual Practice?

For those unaware that a new spiritual spring has arrived, languishing might feel like a natural state. Abdu’l-Baha’s description of winter seems to describe what our world is like now, in many ways – and yet, for those who have awakened to the new spiritual springtime, the signs are plentiful, and we have every reason to celebrate and participate in the global awakening. Generally, Abdu’l-Baha’s words encourage us to be happy: 

Be thou not unhappy; the tempest of sorrow shall pass; regret will not last; disappointment will vanish; the fire of the love of God will become enkindled, and the thorns and briars of sadness and despondency will be consumed! Be thou happy; rest thou assured upon the favors of Baha, so that uncertainty and hesitation may become non-existent and the invisible outpourings descend upon the arena of being!

It may seem impossible to banish uncertainty and hesitation altogether in these volatile times, and those with chronic feelings of languishing and defeat may need to seek treatment for clinical depression and other medical or psychological conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. But cultivating a spiritual awareness and the understanding that we are, indeed, living at a time of a renewal may help us transform our languishing into a more positive state of mind. It might help us find new ways to serve the communities around us, and allow others to find their way to greater meaning, purpose, and connection alongside us. 

May our languishing be short-lived as we find meaning, purpose, and incentive in our inner lives.

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  • Jaine Toth
    Aug 7, 2021
    Thank you, Anne, for these wise words of hope. Let us languish no more!
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