feel it. the thing you don’t want to feel. feel it. and be free.
I have been curious about humans and liminal spaces for many years now. It was my own life experiences that drew my attention to this concept that was first introduced to the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep. However, it was the writings of Victor Turner in the 1960s that took liminality into many other fields of study. His concise definition of liminality informed future writing: “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97). I have written on liminality in numerous articles (place ‘liminal’ in blog search) and contributed my story to an anthology, Neither Here Nor There, edited by Tim Carson.
There have been a plethora of metaphors to try and describe liminality, this ‘betwixt and between’ stage where the ‘old’ is left behind and the ‘new’ has not yet arrived. A trapeze artist letting go of the trapeze without having reached the new one comes to mind. The year 2020 has provided us with a liminality example of global proportions – a pandemic that caused activity around the world to screech to a halt. COVID-19 has destroyed any false ideas about ‘normal’ and ushered in the Giant Worldwide Liminoid Experiment.
In these liminal spaces and times, there are many guests that arrive to take their place at our table of life. Sometimes these guests arrive in a large crowd, gate-crashing a quiet party, and this can be rather overwhelming. Anxiety can be very loud and dominant at these table gatherings. It demands answers, and its twin, Worry, serves as an echo to all its demands. In liminality, Sadness often carries an extra dose of sedatives, which makes it very hard to think or function in any coherent manner – the day goes and we seem to get very little ‘done’. There may also be Anger who is telling all other guests to ‘shut up’ while it tries to wrestle Control to the ground. Liminality can often catapult our quiet existence right into the middle of the Mad Hatter Tea Party of Life.
What is so unique in these pandemic times is that unlike the world we left behind where perhaps just one or two people in our family or community may find themselves in a liminal space because of grief, loss, or crisis, we have now all landed in the corridors of liminality together. COVID-19 has pushed all our sailboats into the open ocean in some way or another. The winds of change are blowing a gale and we are all staring at each other in disbelief. We have become the worldwide ’neither here nor there’ crowd!
Liminal spaces are transitional. In a sense, it’s like the whole world is waiting at a bus stop or a waiting room. From the Latin word, ‘limen’, meaning ’threshold’, it is like we are attempting to look through the doorway of a new tomorrow, but we have not been invited in yet. This is unsettling, to say the least. Especially for people who have had the privilege of security, comfort, and control for most of their lives. Tension is running high. Things that have been ignored or lain dormant for decades begin to wiggle to the surface. An old world is being left behind and amidst the uncertainty, grief, and fear, there is also hope … for a different future.
I don’t have that many words of comfort for us. Liminality is not remotely interested in our comfort. Rather, it is our initiation rite to an altogether different way of being in the world. It’s also often unhelpful to look to political or institutional leaders in times like this. Most of them are frantically trying to hold on to, or recreate the world that was – a world that held them in power. Walter Brueggemann in his book, The Prophetic Imagination, says:
“It is unthinkable for the ‘king’ to imagine or experience a really new beginning that is underived or unextrapolated from what went before. Kings were accustomed to new arrangements and new configurations of the same pieces, but the yearning to manage and control means that new intrusions are not regarded as desirable … And thus the same royal consciousness that could not imagine endings and so settle for numb denial is the one that could not imagine new beginnings …“ (p. 61)
I have found that liminality is a threshold moment that demands things of us – some may find these helpful:
1. ‘Letting Go’ is one of the big learning moments in liminality. Liminality strips us of our vain notion about having control. We also learn that we are attached to stuff far more than we ever acknowledged. “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it,” writes David Wallace. The corridors of liminality are engraved and decorated with claw marks!
2. We become reacquainted with our values and dreams. It is easy to steam through life on autopilot. Crisis, which is a major contributor in moving us to liminality, provides us with evaluation moments – we can take a look at the worldviews and ways of being that we have acquired over time. Crisis asks us, ‘Are you ok with this?’ In a sense, it calls us to a massive spring clean of being. The corridors of liminality are filled with shipping containers that have been left behind by travellers who have moved to a new tomorrow with just a pilgrim’s back-pack. A back-pack that contains what they truly value and want to move towards.
3. We are confronted with our own shadows and fears. Liminality can be a gift to help us face our fragile ego and how it impacts our lives and relationships.
4. We can cultivate a deeper empathy and understanding of the world we live in. Liminality shakes us all up. Everyone around you right now is trying to adapt to a world in limbo. Many are struggling with guests around their table of life that are negatively affecting their sense of self and belonging in the world. Those who were already struggling or feeling isolated prior to COVID-19 are now facing a double whammy. So let’s invite the skill of Kindness to how we live day today. As we interact with friends and strangers, remember that they too are feeling bewildered and weary.
5. Don’t rush back into the mayhem. Liminality is one big Pause moment. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what really matters to you? What is precious? How has your pre-liminal life compromised what is important to you?
The year 2020 is not over!
It is the year that thrust the world into recognising how vulnerable we all are.
It is the year that we are learning the importance of letting go.
The year we are given an invitation to live the mystery of not knowing…
This sacred space of No Longer and Not Yet…