Every so often you come across a word that perfectly captures an entire state of mind. Lately for me, that word’s been liminal.
Liminality is about being in the middle of a rite of passage. It’s about being on the threshold of a big life event. A temporary, in-between state. After the transition, you’ll look back and divide your life into before and after this event. Your first day of school is liminal. Your first week after moving to a new place is liminal. Sometimes, the liminal period can last for a while until you finally settle into a new way of being.
And sometimes, the transition between “before” and “after” is rather short
Sometimes your liminal experience happens on an individual level. A single event rearranges the pillars of your life. Think coming-of-age rituals. It’s a disorienting time to be alive, as any teenager going through puberty will gladly tell you.
Other times, everyone around you lives through the same liminal experience along with you. Your lives are like little ships tossed about by the tsunami of events happening around you. When we think about what’s usually behind these huge waves, we instinctively think of big, cataclysmic events. We point to natural disasters and all-out war as the main impulse for change.
But there are other ways for collective liminality to happen too: think of the frenzy of friendship-making at overnight summer camps, the fever pitch of orientation week in college, the flash-in-the-pan feel of Woodstock.
Either way, it’s a lot to pay attention to. You feel like a newborn trying to look in fifteen directions at once as your senses start to come online. Everything feels upside down and backwards.
Making tie-dyed shirts with someone you just met yesterday (but you know, you just know, that you’re going to end up as lifelong friends) might seem like the polar opposite of banding together as a nation in wartime, but they’re really two sides of the same coin. Both experiences both have a larger-than-life, hyperkinetic quality to them. It’s life in the fast lane. Your world becomes more colorful than the concept of color itself; food tastes different; time feels an illusion. High-voltage. Communities pop up overnight. You go from decades in which nothing happens to weeks where decades happen, just like the proverb says.
For the first time in what seems like a very, very long while, you feel alive. Every moment you spend not taking it all in feels like wasted time because there is so much out there to do. It’s like being a toddler trying to drink from a firehose. It’s times like these that you wish you had a brain that ran about twenty thousand times faster than it does right now, feet that never got tired from walking, arms and legs and eyes and ears that could just capture this moment and the next and the next. You wish you didn’t need to sleep.
You make friends with folks from halfway across the world just because both of you happen to follow the same internet personalities. You write about your secret passion for improvisational music based on popular Italian operas– and make fifteen new acquaintances who’ve started on your path years before you even learned what an aria was.
They say we’re part of history but you never felt like it was real until now. When enough people have the same liminal experience together, it’s the kind of stuff that ends up inspiring thousands of books and treatises recording the here and now.
There’s nothing to do, really, but just enjoy the waves of life washing over you. And somewhere in the back of your mind, there’s a certain amount of desperation to keep the fire burning forever. Part of you is secretly enjoying having the old ways ripped apart and rearranged in chaos. That desire to become the rock everyone holds onto in a crisis? Well, here it is. Always dreamed of being the kind of person who’s got friends from all over the world? Now is the time.
Sure, this level of energetic output isn’t sustainable, but this is limbo anyways so forget about sustainable anyhow. Despite your secret wishes, the party won’t last forever. It never does.
There’s no staying at the peak forever
Then there’s downtime. Every instant you spend away from the action is tinged with discomfort. A little voice in the back of your head is telling you that you should be out there, doing more, living more, experiencing more. Not being stuck doing “relaxation”, whatever that is. (Well, sometimes the little voice is wrong. Sometimes you just need the time-out. And that’s ok too. The point is that the little voice tends to get particularly noisy in times like these.)
That’s one of the loneliest parts of entering the hurricane– deciding how much or little you want to dive into the chaos. It’s such a personal choice with roots in your past. If you’re comfortable with the chaos, you’d probably dive in eagerly; if you just want some peace and calm, it’s quite easy to withdraw and pretend all the change isn’t happening. Where you come from will influence who you become.
Yet there’s freedom here, too. Liminality has a funny way of carving off chunks of your identity.
You thought you were an introvert? Well, turns out you love socializing in a bustling world now that everyone else’s life is in disarray and they’re also looking for some companionship as the world turns upside down. Or if you thought you were an outgoing social butterfly? Now’s the time to rediscover your inner monologue, charging your batteries with books and meditation while the chaos swirls about you. Despite the mountains of words written about it, there’s no grand theory that figures out the perfect ratio of novelty-seeking to normalcy-seeking for everyone. No formula for remaking yourself.
But I do know this: every time I’ve gone through a collective liminal phase, I’ve come out of it grateful for the experience. I’ve rarely regretted very weird, personal-growth periods of my life even though day-to-day I lean more towards the ordinary and the not-crazy.
I’d guess that most folks are like this: most people say they’d like to experience something as transformative as the new-college-freshman-friendship-making bonanza, but more often. Maybe once a year or two. But that’s the thing: they say they want to shake things up, yet we see so many people who feel spiritually stuck, locked down in mind and speech and action by mental prisons.
It’s so easy to trap yourself at a local optimum in daily life. As the number two option as a friend, the odd one out, the one who never gets invited to anything. Stuck living the same way. The same daily routine. These times of monumental change expose all the weakened relationships we’re still clinging to, the bad habits we don’t even notice anymore.
And it’s sad to realize what we’ve lost, but there’s also so much new territory to explore too. Just as the forest fire burns down the trees around it, it also ends up allowing for complex forest habitats with more diversity and robustness than unburned, old forest. Despite the destruction, there’s real value in starting fresh. Firefighters even set fires on purpose in areas that haven’t recently burned just to improve forest health and limit the amount of fuel that future unplanned fires have.
Which leads us to a particularly valuable question: is there a way to summon the magic without needing to rely on tragedy or getting large numbers of people to uproot their lives at the same time? How might we forge friendships with wartime strength without war? How might we learn the art of civil engineering without constant terror of flood and earthquake forcing us to Figure It Out Or Else? Can we set controlled fires to achieve this sort of transformative effect, without burning all our bridges in the process?
These questions are still rattling through my mind at the moment. No great answers right now, but it’s something that I’m going to be exploring with time.