The most-read article in The New York Times in 2021 was not about COVID, not about January 6th, not about the trial of Derek Chauvin, nor about NASA’s helicopter, Ingenuity, flying above the surface of Mars. It was by social psychologist Adam Grant who wrote back in April about languishing,1 a state of being that neither falls into the category of depression nor flourishing but is more akin to a constant state of “meh.” For many, the exhausting hypervigilance brought on by the early anxious months of the pandemic has given way to a more low-grade interest in themselves and life in general, a feeling of being “somewhat joyless and aimless.” Grant added that languishing “is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield, becoming indifferent to your indifference.”
Depression and flourishing anchor much of psychological research. But the prevalence of this in-between state, which has been lightly studied, has left the field scratching its collective head—what exactly are we observing, and what is the proper antidote to move people toward flourishing and away from depression.2 Grant suggests that observing and naming what one is feeling helps and that getting lost in activities that give us joy, a sense of competence, and personal meaning—what psychologists call “flow” —can move us toward flourishing.
Grant’s empirically supported suggestions make sense, especially taking a more active role to move oneself out of the malaise of languishing. But what are the first steps? Following scripture, modern psychology, and Thomas Aquinas, it may be that the ancient virtue of courage can move people away from languishing. By “courage,” I don’t mean the Mel Gibson—William Wallace— “Braveheart” kind where you grimace as your entrails are being yanked out. Instead, I mean to act with the same courage at the root of encouragement—to be inspired to take the small first steps toward more hopeful thoughts, feelings, and actions. In several stories in the gospels, Jesus, when meeting people whose lives were turned upside down, told them to “take courage,” “take heart,” “be of good cheer,” “be encouraged,” or “go in peace.”3 Regardless of the English translation, these phrases have the Greek word, θαρσέω or tharseó at their root. It is an imperative verb, an order if you will, to act with courage.
Psychologists who study courage4 generally agree that it is not so much an outcome or a personality trait as a volitional act to gain or maintain a desirable, important, and morally relevant goal in the face of some form of risk, threat, or fear. Courage walks the tight rope between risk and desire. Paradoxically, the first step in acting courageously is to be vulnerable. If we knew the expected outcome of a courageous act ahead of time, it would just mean plodding along until reaching our desired end-state. It does not take courage to finish a jigsaw puzzle. Relatedly, acting courageously is never its own reward. Instead, it is motivated by a sense of longing for something meaningful. Otherwise, seemingly courageous acts would be little more than recklessness that puts others in harm’s way.
If courage is not a personality trait, why do some people seem more courageous than others? Here’s where Thomas Aquinas might have something to say. Courage, which Aquinas labeled as fortitude, along with prudence, justice, and temperance, make up the four cardinal virtues, the “hinge,” supplying the connective tissue to all other virtues. James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a helpful resource for non-philosophers on the nature of virtues. Smith reminds us that virtues are good moral habits; the more we practice them, the more they become habituated and internalized as part of who we are. Practice is the key here. He writes that we learn virtues through the imitation of others, as Paul calls us to be “imitators of Christ” (Eph 5:1). But virtues move on to become “second nature” through practice. He writes, “such moral, kingdom reflecting dispositions are inscribed into your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition to an end (telos) that becomes a character trait” (19). Being virtuous is an acquired disposition to do the right thing. First responders get well-deserved accolades for acts of life-saving courage. Still, it’s their training—day-in and day-out courageous acts that prepare them to run toward danger when everyone else is running away. Courage is not just a giant leap of faith; it can be multiple small steps, blunders, backtracks, failures, and more small steps adding up to a long obedience in the same direction.
Current psychological research has defined four types of courage: physical, moral, psychological, and vital. When asked about courage, people tend to conceptualize it as physical acts such as military bravery or moral bravery, acting in the face of fear or possible rejection to maintain ethical integrity. But psychological courage, as an internal state, is different from the first two. Rooted in the existential philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre, it speaks to attempts to define and regain an authentic sense of self. I wonder if the interest in Grant’s article stems from a corporate sense of existential languishing. From our temporal perspective, we no longer know who we are; how we situate ourselves in the past, present, and future has been shredded. The pandemic has created a break between the past and the present; personal control over the present has been constricted, and no one knows what “normal” will be in the future. We are anxious people in anxious times. The “meh” aspect of languishing suggests shutting down the connection to one’s authentic self and being at the mercy of the whims of the world to the point of having little sense of personal agency, unable to stop binge-watching Netflix, doom scrolling, or stepping away from that lovely second (or third) glass of pinot noir. Courage, in this case, means actively reclaiming a volitional, authentic, and integrated sense of self rooted in Christ.
Sometimes, however, courage means standing one’s ground, doing nothing different, or carrying on with life under adverse circumstances, all of which underlie vital courage. Much like psychological courage,5 it is internally oriented but with a greater focus on persevering through personal struggles, such as illness or addiction. Here, Aquinas has helped me understand a quieter yet equally forceful type of courage.6 According to Aquinas, fortitude has two habits; the first, labeled “aggression,” encompasses the physical and moral aspects of courage with the habits of confidence and magnificence; however, it is the second habit of endurance that is more akin to psychological and vital courage. Endurance has two habits; patience to do the right thing while waiting for the hoped-for outcome and perseverance to keep doing the right thing even if the desired end may never come. For Aquinas, patience allows us to bear sadness calmly so that it doesn’t overwhelm reason, while perseverance moderates the fear of weariness. They are not passive responses but habits to cultivate. As Paul writes so eloquently in Romans 5:3-5; “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I don’t claim an abundance of patience or perseverance, but I was intrigued that Paul and Aquinas wrote about how suffering, sadness, and weariness underlie the practice of endurance. If fear is present in physical and moral courage, then there’s no shame in trying to persevere in the face of some sorrow or suffering.
The languishing article hit me hard as Grant seemed to describe my own feelings of treading water during the pandemic. I knew I needed to change patterns that started during the early days of the pandemic of too many little personal indulgences that had grown into habits; I needed to cut back on spending so much time on social media and news feeds, including obsessively checking the minutia associated with daily COVID counts, and back out of too many commitments on my time. It felt like I needed courage to get out of my funk. But, if I only focus on the physical and moral aspects of courage, I didn’t understand precisely what Jesus was getting at. Aquinas’s writings on fortitude, and especially endurance, helped me to understand that courage can mean doing less, and Jesus, in asking his followers to take courage, is asking them to trust him in order to persevere. And with that, I can take heart.
- Adam Grant, “There’s a name for the blah that you’re feeling: It’s called languishing’” The New York Times, April 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html.
- For a more academic reading on languishing, see Cory L.M. Keyes, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43, no. 2 (2002): 207–222.
- See MT 9:2,22; MT 14:27; MK 6:50,10:49; Lk 8:48; Jn 16:33
- The psychological literature in this blog is taken from Cynthia L.S. Pry and Shane J. Lopez (Eds.), The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2010).
- There is disagreement among psychologists about whether psychological and vital courage are separate constructs. Daniel Putman and Cooper Woodward take a more existential approach to psychological courage and see them as different, while Martin Seligman and Christopher Petersen see them as the same
- Thomas Aquinas, and Richard J. Regan. The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. (Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co., 2005), 106-118.