Liminality is the feeling we have when we feel alone amid a crowd. It is a state of fluid transience in which we feel outcast from our source of identity and purpose. We become a threshold person and enter, often unwillingly, into a state of flux in which the familiar disappears into an impenetrable mystery. And yet, the shedding of an identity and shifting our sense of purpose in life may be exactly what we need to deepen the experience of being alive.
Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon. – Victor Turner: The Ritual Process
Liminality: Inhabiting the Unknown
The word “liminal” is derived from the Latin “limen” meaning “threshold.” It can also mean “margin.” A liminal frontier is an experience in life in which we are required to release a previous way of life while being completely uncertain about the future. To be in a liminal state is to fully inhabit the mystery of our own existence.
Liminality is the condition of being “betwixt and between;” that is, our sense of identity, purpose, and motivation in life becomes forcibly suspended between the known and the unknown. What was once a familiar pattern of living becomes increasingly foreign.
Liminality transforms the comfort of the familiar into a crucible of uncertainty, confusion, and ambiguity.
For a liminal being (a person entranced within a liminal state), the external world proceeds as usual. But the usual routines and patterns of life no longer feel meaningful, desirable, or fulfilling. The loss of the familiar is a condition of being estranged from the customary patterns of living.
A Crisis of Personal Transformation
Liminality is a transformative crisis. The assumptions that once guided us and provided a sense of coherence in life deteriorate. The beliefs that we had placed our trust in morph into a source of disappointment. The normal routines and patterns of living lose relevance. The social roles that provided a sense of identity degenerate. Moreover, the feeling of being alive become completely unfamiliar, strange, and frightening.
A liminal being, or threshold person, is an individual who is confined to a state of liminality. They are required to navigate a liminal frontier that offers no guarantee of safe passage. In other words, sometimes a liminal encounter never seems to relent, no matter what we do.
One of the most potent liminal crises is the Dark Night of the Soul, a condition of utter spiritual abandonment, emptiness, and isolation. The nature of liminality inside a dark night is horrific, humbling, and threatening. To feel the liminality of the dark night is to feel a sense of vulnerability that brings even the strongest of us to our knees.
A Pathless Frontier
There are no models or processes to follow that can conveniently lead us out of a liminal state. One of the most formidable characteristics of liminality is that it is not possible to find a way out by following the pathways of others.
We must find our own way.
Of course, learning about the liminal experiences of others is practical and useful. Liminal narratives and stories can offer ideas, perspectives, and potential that may inspire our creativity. However, the experience we read about is never our own. In this sense, every human life is a unique variation on the theme of liminality.
Inside a liminal state, nothing is familiar. One of the most confounding things about liminality is not that we don’t know the solution to our predicament, it is that we don’t know the right questions to ask. Forming a good question presumes a degree of familiarity with a subject; liminality amputates the familiar.
Aging as Liminal Experience
Aging conjures significant forms of liminality in life.
For example, the death of an elderly parent can conjure a liminal frontier on a jagged terrain of profound grief. The diagnosis of an age-related disease can conjure a liminal frontier on the humbling terrain of vulnerability. Even the midlife passage, when we first realize that time is running out, can conjure a liminal frontier of disappointment, depression, and despair.
Liminality, like aging, is a primordial force of life. It defines our limitations. For example, the liminality of aging not only defines our temporal limitations, it prescribes the nature of our embodiment over time. These kinds of imposed limitations can be a source of fear and denial. Ageism, for example, is a juvenile reaction to a natural and normal force of life.
And, of course, aging means that we are mortal. If we are fortunate, we will grow old and eventually die. Perhaps the state of dying, those fragile moments when we know with absolute certainty that our time here is coming to an end, is one of the most mercurial encounters with liminality we will experience.
Liminality can appear in other forms at any point in our life. The death of a parent immerses us in a form of liminality known a grief. The diagnosis of a disease can invoke feelings of exile from life as we once knew it. In other words, liminality is an unavoidable life experience.
The Invisible Guests
The threshold person is an individual that has built an allegiance to the liminal wilderness. They recognize that identity is both malleable and permeable; that is, human identity is a dynamic that changes form over time.
In his poem Ars Poetica, Czeslaw Milosz alludes to human identity as being a source of visitation:
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.
Liminality means that our sense of self is not constant. Human identity moves, shifts, and changes over time. Nor is our sense of identity private; it is an opening of oneself to other influences. There is a simultaneity of the individual and the collective within.
The idea of “invisible guests” acknowledges the necessity of the daemonic (not to be confused with demonic) as attendant spirit or inspiring force. In other words, our own identity is a form of conversation with that which cannot be fully known.
We live in uncertain times.
The human experience feels as though it has entered a threatening state of liminality. We know that we cannot maintain our current way of life. Still, we do not know where to go or how to reinvent ourselves.
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.
– Czeslaw Milosz
Liminality and grief are companions. There is a sense of grieving the damage we have done to the earth that is becoming increasingly pronounced. There is also a sense that people around the world are becoming increasingly agitated by the gross inequities in both the distribution of resources.
Our commonplace ideas and beliefs have become permeated with liminality:
- “The economy” is now a symbol of destruction, not progress;
- “The corporation” is now a symbol of malevolence, not benefit;
- “Politics,” is now a narcissistic addiction to power, not leadership;
- “Wealth” is now a symbol of hubris, not generosity; and
- “Consumption” is the symbol of self-destruction.
Humanity is living in a liminal state that threatens our survival but is also an opportunity to evolve toward a more imagination and vital way of living together. Liminality is a source of pain and suffering that always hold the potential for something remarkable and beautiful to emerge.
And perhaps we can learn to find our way in life so that what we do is good for self and others at precisely the same time.
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