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Muddling through Post-COVID Recovery

June 4, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 4, 2021

And then, the pandemic ended. At least it’s beginning to feel that way here in the U.S. While many continue to suffer and grieve tremendous loss, rising vaccination rates, lower rates of COVID illness and death, return to social engagement and signs of economic-rebound kindle hope for the coming year and beyond.

And yet, I feel more sluggish — mentally, emotionally and physically — than any point in the prior year. My daily activities are unchanged — I’m still working, exercising, tending to household projects and spending lots of quality time with family — but they’re generally less fulfilling and require more effort. I’m not depressed, I’ve been there before, and this is different — I’m still hopeful and optimistic. Rather, I’m going through the motions of an otherwise great life, struggling to restore my sense of motivation and momentum.

Apparently I’m not alone, according to a recent article by organizational psychologist Adam Grant. This state of being that many of us are feeling lands somewhere on a spectrum between depression and flourishing — where a sense of stagnation and emptiness dull our motivation and focus. Grant, and others, call it languishing.

Early in the pandemic and until fairly recently too, I, like most, have been highly focused on the threat of COVID and ways to protect myself, family and community. Now, as the threat subsides, I’m feeling depleted — languished.

I’ve been reminding myself that all feelings are temporary. In their fullness, sadness, anger, happiness, joy and even languishing all give way to other feelings, a life lesson I first began to appreciate many years ago. At that time, I had just gone through a lengthy and intense period of upheaval in my personal and family life, and was struggling to find the motivation to finish my final thesis project for graduate school. 

Hard as I tried, pushing through was not working. I was stuck. After weeks of struggling, one day I decided to simply lay down on my futon couch and get nothing done for the rest of the day. I remember thinking what seemed at the time a rather unthinkable thought — I’ll lay on the couch for days, maybe an entire week, and do nothing. 

So, I laid down, without anything to read, nothing to listen to, nothing to do but just lay on the futon (that was long before smartphones). After about two hours my energy and mood had shifted. I returned to my writing and made modest progress and over the course of the following weeks I returned to the futon when feeling stuck, and experienced similar results.

It was a simple lesson, one which countered the erroneous and harmful messages I had received for years to just do it, push harder, more is better. These messages are hard wired, a default response, not just for me but for American culture too. 

As we begin to recover from the pandemic, there are early signs that we are returning to this state of being, one where we strive at work and home, producing benefit but peril too.

So for now, as I languish I remind myself that these feelings will end, but not by force. Rather, the task as I see it, is to merely muddle through a period of post-COVID recovery. It’s an opportunity to feel a muted sense of excitement about our post-pandemic lives, to accept that motivation is lagging, to acknowledge that accomplishments currently require extra effort — and to remember that sometimes simply laying on the couch is a great cure for what ails us.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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