In this month’s Chair’s Report, I am writing about the state of being inactive and unmotivated. Well, actually, I am writing about the difficulty of writing. I seem to be experiencing the doldrums.
According to the National Ocean Service, “the ‘doldrums’ is a popular nautical term that refers to the belt around the Earth near the equator where sailing ships sometimes get stuck on windless waters.” Metaphorically speaking, Dictionary.com tells us that the term refers to “a state of inactivity or stagnation; . . . a dull, listless, depressed mood; low spirits.”
In trying to explain (and understand) what I am experiencing while self-isolating due to the pandemic, I looked up (on Dictionary.com) several words that seem to depict my state of mind:
- Ennui: “a vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness, lethargy, or discomfort”
- Malaise: “a vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness, lethargy, or discomfort”
- Lethargy: “the quality or state of being drowsy and dull, listless and unenergetic, or indifferent and lazy; apathetic or sluggish inactivity”
- Languor: “lack of energy or vitality; sluggishness; lack of spirit or interest; listlessness; stagnation”
- Torpor: “sluggish inactivity or inertia; lethargic indifference; apathy”
- Lassitude: “weariness of body or mind from strain, oppressive climate, etc.; lack of energy; listlessness; languor; a condition of indolent indifference.”
Well, “indolent indifference” seems a bit strong, but you get the idea.
Hmm. How about listless? There’s an interesting word. Dictionary.com defines listless as “having or showing little or no interest in anything; languid; spiritless; indifferent.”
But if I am listless, what am I lacking? What am I experiencing “-less” of? It can’t be lists! I have plenty of those.
From Etymonline.com I learned that listless comes from the Middle English word liste, meaning “pleasure, joy, delight.”
Okay, I understand that at the moment I am not experiencing much pleasure, joy, or delight. The part of my life that I find difficult to understand is that I’m getting very little scholarly work done. I have a ton of writing and editing projects to do. I need to put an existing course online in the next two weeks, and I must create an entirely new seminar that I’ll be teaching for the first time this coming semester.
I am usually a very time-sensitive, task-oriented person, but now that I’m not going to school because of the pandemic, I find that it’s really hard to stay focused and motivated. You’d think I’d be accomplishing a ton of work with the one-and-a-half hours every weekday that I am NOT currently spending driving to and from school, or getting cleaned up to teach! Most of the time, getting ready for the day now involves throwing on sweatpants and a tee-shirt. If I don’t have any Zoom video meetings, I may not even comb my hair!
In addition, as of July 1st, I cut back to 60% time as an employee of my school. I live alone, so I’m not responsible for feeding anyone or educating children at home. Thus – by all reasoning – I should have much more time to finish my book project, put my courses online, clean out my closets, weed the garden, recycle 20-year-old paper files, and so on.
Instead, I seem to be spending my free time re-reading cherished novels and re-watching my favorite feel-good movies. I am worried that I might be turning into an obsessive recluse, like the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Apparently in his later days, Hughes’s favorite movie was “the 1968 Rock Hudson film Ice Station Zebra. He loved it so much so that he had KLAS [a television station he owned] run it on loop for years. Often, he would even call up the station and have them rewind the film for him.” Will I end up watching re-runs of the Star Wars episodes and The Last Holiday over and over again? I hope not! But back to the present.
Not only do I feel listless: I feel guilty. Thousands of people are out of work, separated from their loved ones, battling serious illness, having trouble feeding their families, and are even being evicted from their homes. And that statement doesn’t even acknowledge the ongoing challenges faced by people in war zones or areas affected by draught and starvation! Compared with the situation faced by many people in this world, my life is a piece of cake! I should be organized and productive and energetic and happy!
But I’m not.
A colleague sent me the link to an article that I’d like to share with you – especially if you are experiencing the doldrums, as I am.
Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Writing shortly after COVID-19 hit North America, she compared the current pandemic-mode to other crisis contexts she had experienced. Dr. Ahmad wrote that “while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion.” She also advises that we “ignore the people who are posting that they are writing papers and the people who are complaining that they cannot write papers. They are on their own journey. Cut out the noise.” (In other words, you should stop reading this Chair’s Report at this point – but I hope you won’t.)
Re-reading Ahmad’s article this week has lifted a weight from my shoulders. We are all processing this strange time in our own ways. But I do want to share one very positive antidote to the doldrums with you.
On the evening of June 30th, the last day of my fulltime employment, one of my former students arranged a little online get-together with several students whom I’d worked with over the years. All of them shared with me some way in which I had positively affected their lives. They told funny stories about our time together, or some crazy anecdote from a class, or some career advice I’d given them. At the end of the gathering, I felt uplifted and invigorated. I then experienced three days of productivity, riding the wave of appreciation my former students had generated.
The same thing happened this past weekend. I was a member of an online panel which featured two of my former students. They both referred to me as their mentor and said some lovely things that lifted my spirits. When the webinar was over, I again experienced a period of positivity and energy, which gradually waned over the next few days.
But wait. There is a lesson to be learned here. Maybe I can manage a little self-help. Nearly 40 years ago, my ethnography professor, Dr. Harold Levine, told me that two times makes a pattern. So, here we have a pattern: People tell me I am appreciated and I feel invigorated.
So I’m going to try to energize myself by expressing my appreciation to many people this week, and here in this Chair’s Report I want to focus my energy (yes, I can actually call up some energy) on TIRF.
I deeply appreciate the members of our Board of Trustees. They give so much of their time and effort and financial resources to keep the Foundation going strong. I appreciate all the donors, no matter the size of their gifts, who continue to provide support for TIRF’s mission. I greatly value the work of Ryan Damerow, our Chief Operating Officer (and newsletter editor and webmaster and everything else normally done by a staff of five to ten people). I am so grateful for all the reviewers who have just completed adjudicating the proposals in the 2020 Doctoral Dissertation Grant competition. I also want to thank TIRF’s grantees who occasionally write to us to share news about their own accomplishments. And let me not forget the authors and editors of TIRF’s publications – the newest of which is awaiting my attention right now.
All these people remind me that there are many sources of liste to be found. Although I may be experiencing today’s self-isolating doldrums, if I pause for a moment, I see that – relatively speaking – I am blessed with smooth sailing, despite the negativity and stagnation I sometimes experience.
I hope that very few of the words in the vocabulary list above apply to you. However, if any of the sentiment I have shared in this piece resonates with you, I encourage you to reach out to others. It’s quite likely you will realize that you are not as alone as you may think.
Ahmad, A. S. (2020). Why you should ignore all that Coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-you-should-ignore-all-that-coronavirus-inspired-productivity-pressure/