Time to Define Liminality…
If there is any vocabulary definition you need to understand right NOW, it is liminal space. Why? Liminality is defined as the in-between area between two situations, times, or places. Read on for how this can help you…
Feeling Strange? You’re Likely in Liminal Land.
If you’re feeling strange or confused right now (and who ISN’T feeling strange and confused right now??) it’s likely because you are currently inside the world of liminality. The old situation is behind you, but the new situation is unclear. You are in between and at sea on the voyage to the next thing.
While a liminal space can be scary or unsettling (so much unknown!), it’s also a massive opportunity, so I urge you to take heart. To more fully conceptualize the gifts of liminality now that we know the definition, let’s look at some examples.
Liminal Examples: Ages and Stages
Several time periods of life are liminal, but none is clearer than teen years. As a teenager, you’re not a child, but not an adult. This can be a frustrating and bizarre stage of life — but the growth, discoveries, and learning that occur in these years shape us for the rest of our lives… and can also be quite exhilarating!
Think how many coming-of-age stories there are in literature and media, and how satisfying it can be to see the development of a human spirt as it passes from youth to (increasing) adulthood.
Though you may not be a teenager right now, I invite you to embrace your current situation (if you are indeed feeling liminal) as a similar stage of recalibration and growth to the teenage years. There may be mood swings, anger, and pain, but this in-between time is necessary to move forward. Can you imagine moving from being a child to an adult in a single day?! It couldn’t be done without going insane. Likewise, we need this current liminal time to gradually but steadily shift to the next thing.
Liminal Spaces During Travel
Let’s look at a very concrete liminal space first, then become more abstract to make a useful point. In the physical sense, if you are traveling, liminality occurs when you are between your departure point and the destination.
As I wrote in a previous article about appreciating each liminal space in travel, people all too often ignore this beautiful middle place. What opens up if we love the liminality of the plane’s take-off as much as the destination beach? In honors the gifts of that transitional time, and the exhilaration of leaving the old to head towards the new. Heck — there are even some great sights from the car window on the highway!
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Liminality in Ideas and Beliefs
Let’s get conceptual now to explore one of the most important questions of our time: What do we make of liminal space between one set of beliefs and actions, and a new one??? This in-between realm is essential to examine if we are to move the world into a better and more loving direction, because what we do during that liminal time dictates our individual and collective futures.
For example, imagine a person who is moving from racist beliefs and actions towards active anti-racism. During that in-between time, stumbles will be made, and support will be needed (especially by white allies so the burden doesn’t fall on BIPOC). Depending what happens during this transitional time, the person may decide to turn back and walk away from anti-racism and back to where they started. It is essential that we help support that forward anti-racist progress, and to do that, love of — and patience for — liminality is required.
Yet — We MUST Move Forward
Though we know we will always be in some form of liminality and learning, I do not want the takeaway of this article to be that we should STAY in a liminal space forever. In the case of anti-racist liminality, for example, this can be deadly. The need for absorbing the liminal space’s function must be balanced with the urgency of moving forward to better effectiveness — and less harm to others.
As my Boston colleague Sung-Joon Pai pointed out after reading a first draft of this piece, “As an educator, the longer we linger in the liminal space, the more damage we do to Black and Brown students and colleagues. We must be responsible for and recognize the loss of trust and faith that we accrue (cumulatively) as we linger in this space. We need to recognize that patience and trust of our Black and Brown students and colleagues is finite, as it should be.”
“At some point we may exhaust it and we must be responsible that the onus for that is on us not them. And know sometimes the damage is irreparable. Not a small thing. What kind of audacity do we possess to think we can do good work if we are in this liminal space? Would we want a surgeon to operate on us who is existing in a liminal space between 100% effectiveness and 90%? Would we want a car mechanic to work on our car who is in a liminal space with a new technology? Would we want food prepared by a chef who is in a liminal space learning to avoid cross-contamination?”
So what is there to do in work where it’s harmful or even deadly to linger in liminality, and YET it’s neurologically necessary to take that time and in-between space to integrate mindset shifts? We know change between stages rarely happens overnight, meaning if we don’t allow this liminal time, change may not happen at all. Further, complex work such as anti-racism can’t “arrive” at completion and be “done” like a travel destination — it often requires stepping between liminality and the next stage periodically to work.
So what to do during this liminal dance of growth? Pai wisely suggests being open-eyed about when you are in a liminal stage that is necessary but has the very real potential to harm others. If that’s the case, step aside from positions of power (temporarily or permanently) to protect those around you and while you take time for the necessary growth phase. Alternately (and this option is used to train the aforementioned surgeons) make sure there is a guide from the next stage — an honored and fully compensated guide or ten — there to mitigate harm as you learn.
Liminality in Learning Self Love
After reading this article, I hope you understand that you WILL find yourself in a liminal space at some point in your life (likely numerous times)… and if it’s approached constructively, that’s a good thing. It is essential for growth. Breathe, look around, and see what can be developed despite the discomfort. Know that the time for turning back has passed — and shifting to that next stage will help everyone, yourself included.
Then, show yourself love by allowing that in-between space to steadily work its transformative powers. This may take time, guides, stumbles, revelations, and a LOT humility… but without liminality, there is no progress — and WOW is progress ever needed right now!