For close to two months now, I’ve found myself a bit down in the dumps, to use one of the more alliterative idioms of our language. This is nothing new for me. Had I lived a few centuries ago, they would have said I had a melancholic temperament or “humor” and probably tried some type of purgative or blood-letting that would have been as likely to kill me as help me. I’ve learned over the years that these periodic slumps are generally temporary and I usually recover from them by simply waiting them out while continuing to live my life. After all, the laundry won’t wash and fold itself.
But this latest bout has been hanging on a bit longer than usual. It’s not a full-blown clinical depression where I need professional treatment and medication. If it were, I wouldn’t be doing laundry. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing a blog post. And, in my mind, that’s the kind of state that deserves genuine compassion and concern. My own lackluster state, on the other hand, has been more of a general listlessness/ restlessness, like some invisible cloud in the atmosphere is siphoning away my energy and capacity to feel excitement about anything while I drift from one activity to the next without any sense of real purpose or engagement. The words “yucky” and “blah” come to mind, but a more lovely and precise term a friend shared with me is acedia, which has Greek roots and means a state of apathy and torpor–a sort of spiritual malaise that some early Christian Church fathers believed was a precursor to sloth.
In other words, rather than being an actual illness (like depression), this tends to feel a bit like some kind of self-indulgent wallowing. Like my soul is currently stuck in whiny toddler mode. Rationally, I recognize that I have a great life. With so many people around me experiencing actual hardships and tragedies, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. But in spite of my rational mind sternly telling my inner toddler to quit its bellyaching (a favorite command of my mother’s when I was growing up) and buck up, I still seem to end up on my couch mindlessly playing Soda Crush on my ipad and/or watching TV while gorging on sea salt caramels far more often and far longer than is healthy. Which starts to feel pretty crummy and pathetic, especially when I find myself having to pick chunks of salt out of my bra.
What drives me even more batty than feeling pathetic (it takes about two days of this to make me start feeling sick of my own self) is not knowing why I’m feeling this way. I want there to be a reason so I can address it and bounce back. One thing I’ve realized might be the culprit (although I also recognize that sometimes there is no specific culprit) is that I don’t know what my “next” is. If you are a visitor to this site and don’t know me personally, let’s just say that I am an extremely goal-oriented person. I have to feel like my life is heading towards something or I am purposefully aiming in a particular direction. While I (perhaps somewhat contradictorily) also really like stability and security–I am rather change-resistant, actually–I’ve come to realize that what truly energizes and excites me is working productively on some type of new project or challenge. Or planning my next adventure.
When I was thinking back on the last time I experienced this type of extended slump that had no discernible reason (as opposed to the period of genuine grief and trauma I experienced after my mother’s death and my father’s attempted suicide), I remembered that it was after I finished graduate school–after years of high intensity study while working full time, culminating in a master’s degree. With this goal now behind me and hours of free time ahead of me, one would think I’d have all kinds of energy and my life would become even more enjoyable. I thought that. But the opposite occurred. I found myself constantly listless and bored, and rather than read the many novels I’d put aside for “later” or finally organize the clutter in my house, I ended up watching hours of junk TV. I went from researching Milton’s use of carnal rhetoric in Comus to watching marathons of “Behind the Music” episodes (you want to know who had a hard life? Pink did, that’s who).
In other words, give me too much time, stability, and sameness and it leads to entropy. Last year I had two major “nexts”–I applied for, planned, and went on a really exciting and wonderful trip. I went through the process of completing and publishing my novel, something I’d been working on for years. And now I don’t know what’s next. I also get a little scared that there might not be another next. I don’t know why having a meaningful job, a house, a lovely family and friends, and all the entertainment I could want right at my fingertips isn’t enough. It just isn’t. I am deeply and humbly grateful for all of those things, but I can also recognize that I am wired to need projects and challenges that keep me growing, learning, and creating.
And while writing this post feels like it’s perhaps just one more self-indulgent wallow (the diary entry of my neurosis foisted on you poor, unsuspecting readers), at least it’s writing. I might not have control over when or how the next “next” will manifest, but I can at least practice some of the habits that position me in a more open and receptive posture. As my good buddy and fellow over-thinker Hamlet once said, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.” Of course, this was him talking about death and he gets nicked by a poisoned sword just a short while later and dies. But I think this notion of practicing readiness applies to life as well. See? Look at that. I’m getting more positive already. And I only ate two caramels while writing this.