These days it is difficult to find words to describe our feelings – we seem to have used them all up. The floundering for explanations and consolations since COVID-19 hit near the beginning of last year has accrued a vast agglomeration of perceptions and opinions – and not all of them are valuable or true.
At the beginning of this term, I discovered a word in the New York Times (19th April 2021) that I shared with our staff. Adam Grant proposes ‘languishing’ as an apt descriptor of our shared emotional condition. The term is attributed to Corey Keyes – a psychologist and sociologist best known for his work in Positive Psychology. Keyes recommends ‘languishing’ as an umbrella term that seeks to describe the liminality or ‘middle ground’ between despair and flourishing. It is not a totally new concept.
Much earlier, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas suggested that we suffer from an “awkwardness” between our rational understandings of life and an intuitive yearning for transcendent answers. A similar view is shared by American philosopher Thomas Nagel who describes this blind spot as a sense of ‘unsufficiency’ - a personal feeling of depletion and inadequacy. What do we do with these aching spaces between our knowing and our hoping?
Languishing captures the contextual sentiments of the pandemic, and it is experienced most often as a sense of being stalled or hampered - the impression of working harder but achieving less. This inertia is typified by feelings of emptiness or meaninglessness, shorter concentration spans, distractibility, reduced performance levels, lowered expectations, constant tiredness, indifference or moods of surrender, a loss of courage, and skepticism are typical manifestations of languishing. In a few cases, this sense of ‘inner oppression’ drives people to lash out, blame, or act aggressively towards others, but this is often motivated by fear or apprehension. Re-watching old movies or TV series is a common indication of languishing, and we do so because we know the outcome, which reduces the anxiety of unexpected endings.
Recommendations for coping with languishing are as numerous as the words we use to describe it. I am a proponent of simplicity when life’s layered challenges become too obscure. Acknowledging our languishing is a good start – and giving ourselves permission to languish, and not to feel guilt or self-doubt, as a result, is important.
The value of lament is a pervasive theme in the Bible during times of personal and social distress, and it plays an important healing role as an agency of compassion. Psalm 13 provides a good example; “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?... But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” The important conclusion to almost all Biblical laments is the promise of hope in restoration. A spirit of hope is foundational to all other remedies we construct to deal with despair.
So, beyond the obvious advice to exercise, to eat a balanced diet, and to interact positively and supportively with our families, friends, and peers, I have also found myself praying more deeply. Curiously, my prayers have been less inclined to implore God to ‘come down’ and fix everything than they have been to ask for the will and ability to be an instrument of restoration and hope. For some people, prayer is an injunction to God to fulfill his promise to intervene supernaturally in our world and stop the pandemic. For others, even for those who are not normally religiously inclined, prayer can be a way of narrating our experience as a means of integrating our reality with greater wisdom and care.
The “awkwardness” which Habermas speaks of between our rational knowledge of reality and our inner longing to transcend our suffering and uncertainty is, indeed, a lament – a languishing, and its restorative potency should not be underestimated. When we feel pain together, we should be inclined to be more aware, more sensitive, more patient, more compassionate, and more generous. In effect, we become the agents of the transcendence we long for.
There is a Service of Healing in our Anglican Prayer Book (1989) which speaks into this agency. Extracts from these prayers read as follows (Pg 498 ff); “Blessed Lord… we stand in humility before the mystery of suffering… fill us with your peace and support us with your love… Giver of all comfort, look with compassion upon our distress, give us a clearer understanding… and cast out all our fear and doubt. Give us the gift of hope amidst our perplexity and pain, that in quietness and trust, we may find our rest in you. We give you thanks and praise for those [who have been healed] and pray that you will continue your gracious work in hospitals and homes… Give wisdom, sympathy, and patience to those who minister to the sick, and prosper all that is being done to prevent suffering… Watch, Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep… give rest to the weary… relieve the suffering and calm the distressed; for your dear Name’s sake. Amen.
I have enjoyed the theology of NT Wright. In his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, he says that; “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonise earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” The consolation of ‘heaven on earth’ need not be ‘pie in the sky’ – it can be experienced as the real presence of love, grace, and healing amidst our suffering, and it speaks poignantly into our motto – Lux, Vita, Caritas.
It is my prayer that the whole St John’s Community will know that our corporate lament is acknowledged, that we are all recognised and appreciated, that we are present to support and care for each other, but most of all, that we are all loved.
With my prayers and blessings,
The Revd Dr Jeremy Jacobs
* The Revd Dr Jeremy Jacobs heads up the Chaplaincy at St John's College