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 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 immediately notice feeling a surge of compassion 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 fall on the political or religious spectrum, we’re all feeling chronically anxious about things right now. It’s a point of common human connection we can all relate to.
So how did we get here? Where has all this nationwide anxiety come from?
Now I don’t even have to tell you that the knee-jerk response to that question is some version of “Them.” Most of us already thought it 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. You don’t see the danger in yourself, or perceive your own behavior as a threat, because that doesn’t make sense. The problem isn’t you; it’s them. Right?
You’ve already begun to see it, haven’t you? The problem isn’t them. The problem is us. All of us.
More specifically, the problem is our collective anxious response to the whole world being in a liminal space right now.
(Wait, what?! Liminal? What’s liminal? I thought we were talking about politics and religion.)
OK, sorry. But hang with me here.
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.”
In their book, The Fourth Turning, historians William Strauss and Neil Howe describe history in terms of cycles that repeat across generations. The transition between each phase of the cycle is classic liminal space, ripe with uncertainty and often prone to producing angst on a global scale. They assert that we are in just such a liminal space right now, the “fourth turning” as they call it, which is characterized by widespread loss of trust in national institutions and increased division between various groups, all born out of fear and uncertainty.
Well, I personally think it goes even deeper than that. I believe the western world (and perhaps the whole world) is actually in the midst of an era shift. An era can be defined as a period of human history dominated by a prevailing paradigm by which we understand who we are as human beings and our place in the larger universe. The last major era shift (from the Medieval to Modern Era in Europe) happened when we discovered Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. That shift in understanding changed everything that was commonly believed about what it means to be human and our place in the world. The implications of this revelation unraveled long-held assumptions about the nature of God and the moral structure of the world, contributing to the Reformation, which on a theological level was mostly about the individual’s right to direct access to God (i.e. the “priest” could no longer be the center of the Christian universe).
In a similar way, I think we stumbled across the threshold into a new era sometime in the early part of the 20th Century, from the time we discovered the truth about relativity and quantum mechanics; specifically, the fact that what is “real” or “true” in the physical universe is very often dependent on one’s perspective. A hundred years later, we are still in the early phases of working out the implications of this revelation on what it means to be human, our place in the larger universe, and even what it means for something to be “true.”
But that’s not the only thing that has thrust us into the liminal unknown. Since Einstein’s discovery, several other paradigm-shifting revelations have spilled out into the world:
Mapping the human genome.
A complete mapping of the human genome has revealed the certain existence of other variations of “humans” that arose on Earth and did not survive, causing us to redefine our collective story as a species, and rethink what it means to be human.
The promise of E.T.
The now common acceptance in the scientific world of the likelihood (some would say inevitability) of life on other planets, and the expectation that at least some of that life will be intelligent is causing us to reimagine our place in creation.
The advent of the internet.
On a social plane, the rapid spread of the internet has made the majority of the world instantly accessible, and has brought its people close to one another in an unprecedented way. This is making it increasingly difficult to maintain a comfortable “us” and “them” worldview, forcing us all to come to terms with the fact that “we” are “them,” and “they” are “us,” whether we like it or not.
The Earth as a limited resource.
The growing awareness of the Earth as a limited resource is forcing us to recognize that we are a global village where everything we do affects everyone else, and vice versa. In particular, the realization that the western lifestyle (now being hungrily adopted by China) is not sustainable for the planet long term, and the moral and ethical implications of continuing to pursue a life of materialism and consumerism while over half the world’s population lacks clean water, decent shelter, or even a toilet to poop in, is all forcing us to rethink what it means to be moral or humane in our treatment of others.
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 revelations will lead. All that’s clear is that how we define ourselves as human beings, and how we understand our place in the universe, is in the process of change.
As Rohr points out, liminal spaces like these 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.” It’s where the Church is as well (and perhaps even more so). 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 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 decades. We all know it. 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 them 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 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:
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.”
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:
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. Then think and act in ways that help bring that vision to reality, and encourage others to do the same.
Thanks for bearing with me all the way to the end! Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. But I know I don’t have the whole picture, so I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Let me know what you think in the comments below. What questions or thoughts would you add to the conversation? And remember…
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” ~ Blaise Pascal