NPR (National Public Radio) is often my channel of choice in the car when I’m not listening to The Beatles. I recently heard an interesting interview on “Here And Now.” It was actually something I was thinking about, so Karma struck again.
Corey Keyes, a sociologist at Emery University, has coined the word “languishing.” And although this word has been in our lexicon for a very long time, it has come to the forefront during the pandemic. But I thought that it also applies to amputees, especially those who are new to this journey and also to those who have had major setbacks, such as major revision surgery or losing another limb.
Keys describes languishing as “the absence of feeling good about your life.” It is NOT depression; it is the absence of feeling. You go through the motions of living, doing your daily activities, with one caveat. You are neither happy nor sad about your life. I think of it as a kind of emotional purgatory. Keyes states, “languishing is also the lack of meaning, purpose or belonging in life, which leads to emptiness, lack of emotion and stagnation.”
This resonated with me on a very deep level because I, like many of you, have had to do some serious pivoting after amputation. Not only did we have to learn how to do everything in a different way, we also had to deal with other issues that had nothing to do with our physical changes.
For me, the biggest pivot was work; my doctors would not allow me to go back to a 36 year career that I loved. I had to ask the board of trustees for special permission to retire, and asking the board for retirement was the most professionally difficult letter I’ve ever written. Sitting in my hospital bed at an inpatient acute care hospital, I completed it and then cried until there were no more tears. I believe that was the beginning of a period of languishing for me. At that point I had been hospitalized for nine months (still had my leg) and was wondering what the hell I was going to do for the rest of my life. Teaching was the only thing I knew, or so I thought at the time.
After my amputation, one of my doctors told me that I would be the subject of an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. I have absolutely no memory of the interview my doctors did with me for this article. I blame the pain meds. The interview took place in 2018, and due to peer review, the article wasn’t published until December of 2019.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
“I don’t know why I’m alive, so I’m hoping at some point that I’ll figure that out and that I’ll have a purpose for continuing.
Dr. King: Sometimes we are not meant to understand why things happen in the moment. I have no doubt that you will find your purpose.”
The French have long had a word for what Corey Keyes calls languishing – ennui (ahn-wee). We experience ennui when we feel we are just going through the motions without any emotional response, be it positive or negative. We are not sad, happy, excited, pissed off, bitter, or exhilarated. We just exist. If this sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. All of us have trauma, and at some point, many of us just don’t have anything left in our emotional tank, so we go through the motions without intent; we have no idea what our future entails for us.
We talk much about the physicality of limb loss/difference, but more needs to be discussed about the emotional and psychological aspects as well. Having a good support system will help you get out of your “languishing” state of mind. As with everything else, you have to work at it.
Once I realized I was never going to teach in a classroom again, I struggled for a very long time to find purposefulness. Lots of soul searching; I’m still working on it four years later, but I’m much closer and focused on what I can do to fill that void.
What you do to fill that void can be anything that lights your fire and pulls you out of that funk. Get professional help if you need it. Recognize it, stare it down, and eat it for breakfast.
And remember: You never know how much strength you have until you are called upon to use it.