A liminal period arrives as foreboding feelings of uncertainty caused by periods of deep change. It is first felt as a disturbing break from the past in which a familiar way of life has been lost. A key characteristic of liminality is the impossibility of retreat; that is, there is no way back into the old life. Ambiguity is the underlying ground of the present moment. Nothing has prepared us for this. We do not know what to do, what direction to pursue, or where to go from here. Inside a liminal frontier we are confined on a threshold between what once was and what has yet to be.
The COVID-19 pandemic conjures a liminal frontier. The virus confines all of us on a threshold betwixt and between two different states of living. The former state of pre-pandemic life has vanished. The next state hidden behind an impenetrable fog of uncertainty. And we stand frozen on a threshold between grieving the past and hoping for the future.
But liminality is a form of grace. Ambiguity a faculty for understanding. Anxiety, wisdom.
A new vocabulary exposes the liminal ground of the pandemic: novel coronavirus, animal-human interface, zoonotic, patient zero, pandemic, endemic, herd immunity, infection rate, death rate, lockdown, outbreak, waves, community spread, person-to-person transmission, droplets, quarantine, self-isolate, COVID fatigue, frontline workers, personal protective equipment, pre-existing conditions, anti-maskers, ventilators, long haulers, flatten the curve, physical distancing, social bubbles, contact tracing, super-spreader, asymptomatic carrier, therapeutic intervention, vaccination, clinical trials, agoraphobia, and COVID-19 Syndrome.
Follow the liminal. See where it goes. Most of all… refuse a return to “normal.” It has been the problem all along. It’s “normal” that got you here. It’s “normal” that you are trying to liberate yourself from.
In the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the basic tasks of living now feel tense and arduous. Every day we are confronted with the statistics of the pandemic. The constant onslaught of warnings maintains a cold grip on awareness. Mind-numbing denial and avoidance overwhelm scientific evidence. Existing social tensions boil over. Deep cultural wounds bleed out into the streets. Delusion and denial overwhelm science. The virulence of entitlement reaches epidemic proportions. Patho-adolescent politics trump global peace.
The liminality provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic offers wisdom. It advises us not to take our time her for granted because the unexpected can suddenly arise in any moment and claim us as its own. It reminds us that life is permeated with creative uncertainties that can suddenly redirect our course in life with remarkable ease. And it demonstrates that we have far less control over our course in life than we think.
But this… we can exercise genuine control over our thoughts, reactions, and beliefs even while stranded in the wretched ambiguity of a liminal frontier. Wellbeing isn’t about trying to feel good, but it is always about confronting, accepting, and adapting to the creative uncertainties of being alive. Even in our darkest moments, there is always a choice to be made.
- The word liminal is derived from the Latin limen meaning threshold or margin. A liminal frontier originates in profound unresolvable feelings of having lost one’s way in life.
- In his book The Ritual Process, Victor Turner coined the term betwixt and between and describes liminal beings as having “no status, property, insignia, secular clothing indicating rank or role, position in a kinship system – in short, nothing that may distinguish them from their fellow neophytes or initiands.”
- My work expands liminality to include physical, mental, and spiritual experiences. In this sense, Dante’s journey into a dark wood is a metaphor for the initiation of a liminal frontier. The idea of being midway in life is a depth, not a chronological, concept: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost. Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say What was this forest savage, rough, and stern, Which in the very thought renews the fear.”
- This poem, for me, captures precisely what needs to be done while being held within a liminal state: “Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are, with what you have. Just….start.” – Ijeoma Umebinyuo
- Liminality also means that we are never alone, not even in the privacy of our own mind: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.” (Czeslaw Milosz in Ars Poetica? )
[Return to Frontier 2: Mind]