Liminal (definition): of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.
A friend of mine who works with people systems in the corporate world made a keen observation about the United States the other day. We were talking about how increasingly divisive and angry public discourse has become among U.S. citizens in the last few years, and she said, “It’s understandable. The whole country is demonstrating the qualities of what we call a ‘chronically anxious system.’ Everybody’s nerves are on end. We’re all exhausted from being on ‘high alert’ for dangers and threats for a long time now. But we don’t yet feel safe enough to stop and take a collective breath. So we just keep spinning ourselves up over every new threat that pops up on the newsfeed.”
That pretty much nails it, doesn’t it? When I hear this, I notice a wave of compassion rising in me for all of us, even those I struggle to understand. I know what’s it’s like to feel anxious and not know how to stop feeling that way. It’s exhausting. No matter where you stand on the pandemic, or the state of racism in America, or Red vs Blue, or climate change (remember that old chestnut?), we’ve all been laboring under a weight of chronic anxiety for quite a long time now. It’s a point of common human connection we can all relate to.
So how did we get here? Who’s to blame for all this anxiety we’re experiencing?
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the knee-jerk response to that question is typically some version of “them.” You know: Those people. That other group. The other side. The nutcases. Many of you probably thought something like that just now, right? Why? Because that’s what you do in a chronically-anxious system. You scan the world for danger. You identify potential threats. But it’s always out there. We don’t see the danger in ourselves, or perceive our own behavior as a threat, because that doesn’t make sense. The problem isn’t us; it’s them. Right?
Partly, sure. But if all you’re seeing is “them,” then you’re not yet seeing the larger truth of what’s really going on here. The problem isn’t just them. The problem is also us. It’s all of us. And it will take all of us to find a way through this—together.
The fact is we’re all worn down from the onslaught of the nonstop pressures of recent years. We’re all weary. We’re all uneasy about the uncertainty of our times, and that uncertainty is making us feel more anxious than usual. We’re on edge. We’re afraid, even if we don’t like admitting it, and fear has a way of making us react when we should respond, or pass judgment when we should offer understanding, or build walls when we should build bridges.
Just think for a minute about all the stressors that have hit us in just the past 18 months:
the impeachment trial of President Trump
wildfires raging through the Amazon rainforest
mass shootings in the U.S., New Zealand, and other nations
an increasingly divisive and often toxic political environment in the U.S.
a few of the largest hurricanes and cyclones we’ve ever faced
rampaging bush fires swarming through Australia
the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the world
protests and riots erupting across the U.S. in response to the death of George Floyd
Is it really any wonder we’re worn thin? “Normal” left the building way before the pandemic hit, and there’s no clear indication when or if or how it’s ever going to return. We are in liminal space now, and will be for the foreseeable future. That’s not an easy place for any of us to be.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” A liminal space is the “unknown” space between the loss of what has been and the clear arrival of what’s next. It’s when you’ve left something behind (not always by choice), yet have not yet fully entered into something else.
Richard Rohr describes liminal space this way…
“… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
It’s as if we have suddenly awakened to find ourselves surrounded by a cacophony of “I don’t knows.” It’s uncertain where any of these big developments will lead. All that’s clear is that the question of who we want to be as human beings, and how we will choose to be with one another, is being put to us in forceful, unavoidable ways. As Krista Tippett recently wrote:
“The question of ‘who we will be to each other’ has been surfacing ever more insistently across my conversations for over a decade, and its civilizational implications have now been laid bare in our economies, our politics, and our cultures. Will we create the world our children — all of our children — deserve to inhabit?”
Liminal spaces like the one we’re in now can be very disorienting, even terrifying. Think of a trapeze artist hanging in empty space between the time she releases the bar of the known-but-now-past, and cannot yet reach (or perhaps even see) the next bar of the new-but-not-yet-come. That is liminal space, and while in it, she must decide how she will think and behave. If she flails her arms in panic and fear, looking back for the bar she just released or looking down at the floor in terror, she will most certainly fall, and then hope to God there is a net beneath to catch her. But if she relaxes and trusts, stretching out her body to lay hold of the next bar when it arrives, she will not fall, but rather fly.
In the uncertainty of liminal space, people caught up in fear sometimes flail. And sometimes when they flail, they end up losing the possibility of a new and better future. But if we opt out of flailing, and instead choose to trust, truly amazing things become possible.
In the coaching world we say that “I don’t know” is a truly powerful place to stand, because it’s the place where anything becomes possible. That’s the gift of liminal space. It’s available to all who choose to reach into the amazing possibilities of “I don’t know,” trusting that a new reality will appear that we can trust, and that will carry us forward into a future that the previous reality could never reach.
That’s where we are as a nation at the moment, free floating between our “old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” There’s a lot of flailing going on, a lot of panic, often expressed in the form of outrage, and a lot of distrust. This is not the way forward, and if it continues for too long, it will likely cause us to plummet to our own demise. We could very possibly destroy ourselves.
But there is another path available in this liminal space for those who dare to choose it. If we can overcome our instinct to flail, and instead choose to see our shared liminality not as falling but as a purposeful leap, we will not only survive this crisis, but even thrive in the uncertainty it forces us to engage. The same liminal space that provokes us to panic also invites us to profound possibility and renewal. What if we were to take this opportunity to imagine something new—new ways to live, new ways to converse, new ways to work out our differences, new ways to care for one another and for our shared home?
What is past is comfortable but no longer attainable. The world has irrevocably changed over the past several years, even the past several months. That old reality is already gone, and part of the courage required of us in times like these is to accept the truth of that. There is no going back. The only way for any of us now is forward, into the vast ambiguity of an uncertain future.
But it need not be dismal, and in truth will not be dismal for the one who believes. For him, for her, for those courageous many (because I hope they are many!), these are times that will call us forth to an extraordinary, positive trust in the possibility of goodness and our collective power to choose.
It’s in these liminal spaces of history, more than any other, that how one chooses to see the world creates the world. We project our faith or conversely our fear into the foggy ether of the unknown now, and pull from it the very reality our fears or faith would conjure. Thus these are dangerous, delicate times, but they are also bursting at the seams with rich and wonderful possibilities. And all of it is decided by how we each choose to engage the liminal space...between the letting go of how things have been and the grabbing hold of how we create them to be.
Which will you choose: to flail, or to fly?
If you are one of those who chooses to fly (and I hope you are because we need you!), here are a few tips to help you find your wings:
1. Keep reminding yourself that we’re all in this together. This transition is happening to all of us—left, right, center, traditionalist, moderate, progressive, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, None, West, East, Middle East, black, white, asian, hispanic, old, young, middle aged, male, female, gay, straight, and everyone and everything in between. The tired claim that “the problem is Them” is a reactive posture rooted in fear. Let go of the Us vs. Them mindset in favor of the deep recognition that we’re all in this together. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said…
"I think God is setting us a big challenge, a really big challenge. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that He’s really giving us very little choice. To quote that great line from W. H. Auden, ‘We must love one another or die.’ That is, I think, where we are at the beginning of the 21st century. And since we really can love one another, I have a great deal of hope."
2. Don’t collude with the anxiety of others (i.e. Don’t Flail!). There are often dozens of opportunities presented to us every single day to be outraged, go on the offensive, and deepen the divisions that exist between us. Say no to them. Rather, choose the compassionate response, both for yourself and others (which is often not to respond at all). In fact, you’d do well to unplug from the anxiety/outrage machine of social media from time to time and instead meet face to face, preferably across the dinner table, with people who don’t see things the way you do. Here’s one organization that’s providing us a brilliant way to do that. I recommend you check them out: The People's Supper
3. Seed your community with positive trust (i.e. Practice Flying!). Notice your fear, but don’t let it run you. Instead, keep your attention on your highest dream for what the world and the people around you can become. Think, act and pray in ways that help bring that vision to reality, and encourage others to do the same.
"The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next." — Ursula K. Le Guin