Liminality in a time of Pandemic

(This blog post from Timothy Carson previously ran on TheLiminalityProject.org)

As I opened up a small tutorial class in the Honors College of the University of Missouri this week, I checked in with students, asking them how they were doing. It was more than rhetorical; I really wanted to know, considering the big changes unfolding around us. Following a short silence one of the students simply said, “Every day just gets stranger and stranger.” That pretty well summed it up. He didn’t have to delve into the various layers of emotion. The rest of us could fill in the blanks.

It could be said that most everyone affected by the current rising pandemic is sensing something similar, that things are getting stranger and stranger. Oh, yes, the emotional underlay might be fear, or anger, or a sense of helplessness, but the overwhelming sensation is one of strangeness. I don’t think that is so unusual. In fact, when whole societies cross certain thresholds that separate them from what was their familiar way of life and plunges them into a whole new way of things, we say that they have plunged into a state of social liminality, betwixt and between, an ambiguous, undifferentiated state in which familiar and even taken for granted landmarks are absent.

In a larger sense, the Corona virus pandemic belongs to a family of related pandemics throughout history, pandemics that all brought about severe social disruption. And pandemics belong to the even larger category of disasters – fire, war, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tsunami, drought, exile and migration, explosions, and revolutions. All of these chaos events cast whole groups of people into a new state of things. They often necessitate great efforts at survival. Organizational structures are shaken and reorganized. Some things later return to their former state of being before the disaster and some do not.

In Rebecca Solnit’s in-depth study of disasters entitled A Paradise Built in Hell she identified dozens of social disasters of various kinds and analyzed their impacts, aftermath and communal responses. Her conclusions are very interesting as they stand in some sharp contrast to prevailing assumptions about what disasters yield. In fact, many of the researchers who specialize in disasters in the aggregate or in particular disasters cite the same difference between popular assumptions and reality.

One of the assumptions about large chaos events is that the society will devolve into anarchy, rioting, and violence. Though that occurs in some measure, the opposite is most usually the case. What normally occurs is a gathering of the tribe for mutual survival. Class distinctions are often set aside. Individuals and sub-groups self-organize for the public good – like providing shelter, food, water and medical attention. In liminal studies we say that such groups facing similar challenges experience Victor Turner’s now famous coined term, communitas – a special community of the in-between.

In many cases governmental structures can be helpful – if they are already effective and serving the interest of the people. When they are not they often only protect their self-interest, even worsening the aftermath of disasters by enforcing unnecessary marital law, applying violence where it is unnecessary and impeding recovery rather than facilitating it. That was conspicuously in play in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

One of the key findings of disaster studies is the relationship between disasters and revolutions. In almost every case that governmental structures were either the cause of enormous human suffering or were incompetent, the disaster shook loose the hold of that government on its own power. Revealed for what they were or were not, governments fell from the raw power of disasters, losing their mandate and position as a result. The people not only welcomed the fall but worked to make it so. A sweeping disaster can either start or complete a process of social transformation, thrusting the society into liminal chaos until it reconstitutes itself. This can take place quickly or stretch into a rather indefinite process.

In our world-wide pandemic many things will transpire as a result of a great disruption. The familiar and supposedly safe structures of life will give way to uncertainty. The time of chaos will reveal true resiliency among groups of people who will not only protect themselves, but come together in common cause. Ineffectual and self-serving government and its officials will be revealed for what they are and give way to forms more responsive to the people. Local and regional efforts will rise to the top as models of what the tribe may do on the front lines of challenge. And in the best case scenario we will discover what is needed to address the new normal, a way of necessity that is discovered in the midst of liminal time and space, positioning us individually and socially to move forward differently.

We shall be changed. Into what is yet to be determined. But the artists of the human spirit will be crafting new vehicles to take us there as they navigate that liminal dark energy that defies our every attempt to control it.

From: Plato, To: Activists for Love and Justice (Re: Covid-19)

By Michelle Trebilcock

18th May 2020

[These words have been written from my home on Wurundjeri Country of the Kulin Nations in the land called Melbourne, Australia. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging who are the continuing sovereign custodians of this land despite the crimes of colonisation.]

For those of us who have devoted ourselves to the work of love and justice, we sense the importance of this time of Covid-19. My Facebook feed (populated by likeminded justice activists and spiritual seekers) is balanced between the extremes of fear and hope: betwixt global social, economic and ecological collapse, and the birth of a new era for spiritually awake humanity.

As we move into the second, third or fourth month of pandemic response measures across the globe, we move beyond adrenalin fuelled adaptation to this crisis, to confront the possibility of ongoing vulnerabilities for ourselves and the people we care about. And, for those who care about love and justice, we know it is those with the least who are, as always, most at risk of both the illness and its economic impact. It is a deeply distressing time for those of us who care. But how do we plan, think, act, organise and lobby in order to make a difference? Be your sphere of activism politics, church or grassroots community, what does activism look like in the liminal space of global pandemic?

There are a group of Plato’s dialogues that are concerned with one or other of the ‘virtues’ of ancient Greek philosophy and end in what he called aporia. Each of these dialogues contains a stream of thinking that ends in puzzlement, perplexity and an impasse of understanding. Aporia is the intellectual state of perplexity, the learning edge. Plato is quite optimistic, even excited, about reaching this edge in a structured discourse of logical reasoning, for this is the edge of new ways of thinking and being in the world.

In the lived experience of our thinking and being systems, aporia can be a very difficult experience. For Plato and his peers, philosophy was a way of life with practical, ethical and social applications. When the stable and structured forms of thinking fall away, the human person (and the human community) is presented with a crisis of un-knowing. We must face the fact that the way we have existed in the world has passed. It is a kind of death and therefore is potentially a moment of profound, complex grief and loss.

“Now is the time to reimagine our communication – to integrate feeling, storytelling, art, movement, and non-binary thinking that persuades, stirs and energises new movements for old problems.”

It is in these times, Plato suggested, that the philosopher turns to poets and priests, who say there is a memory of perfect virtue contained in our human soul. Knowledge of virtue, and of other subjects of the soul, comes not through teaching, only through what Plato called a ‘recollection’ of the soul.  Soul, or psyche is the root of our word for psychology. Sidestepping all the conversations we could have about the obtuse meaning of the word ‘soul,’ we can add psychologists to Plato’s lists of resources for navigating through our present experience of aporia.

Psychologically, living and working through the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to be a dangerous moment of fear, despair, loss, and disorientation. For many it will challenge the balance of our mental health and wellbeing – not because we are weak but because we are human.

Activism frequently has the potential to take us into psychologically challenging spaces. Friends, family and colleagues are usually our primary sources of comfort and support, but at this point in time when we are all challenged by the coronavirus situation, you may find it useful to speak to a professional with whom there is no reciprocal obligation––your GP or an on-line counsellor are good places to start. Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow describes grief as an apprentice for the work of love in the vocation of life. There is a rich purpose in courageously engaging with feelings that might arise at this time, rather than ignoring or sidelining them as insignificant. Let grief be your teacher.

Personally, I am needing to draw on all my psychological skills to stay present to what is here and now before me: but it is the only way to stay sane! So this is what I do:

Create a safe space – even if that’s in my head – for half a minute.
Take a slow, conscious breath.
Observe what is around me. Breathe.
Observe my body’s reaction. Breathe.
Practice deep acceptance and self compassion. Breathe.
Find a single, small next action. Breathe
Decide to move ahead with grace.
Take an intentional, determined breath. Re-engage with what is before me.

Embracing the opportunities of the pandemic’s disruption to business-as-usual may require new skills for thinking and action, as we navigate the liminal space of global uncertainty and insecurity. We know some things, we do not know others. Apart from our own health and wellbeing, meeting the psychological or spiritual (to use another of soul’s obtuse meanings) challenges is part of the work itself. We may need to form new relationships, experiment with new ways of relating, and be open to new and surprising alliances. Now is the time to reimagine our communication – to integrate feeling, storytelling, art, movement, and non-binary thinking that persuades, stirs and energises new movements for old problems.

All of these non-logical types of thinking require breathing space: the allocation of a safe space where we can stop, let go of what is not working, let go of trying to make it work, rest and then pick up – not from where we left off, but from some new insight gained in the midst of crisis. As Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic wrote, ‘Beyond right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.’

In the end, we are all human. It is the human to human connection that leads to lasting change. So, can we advocate with feeling, breath, humility and compassion to a whole sector of government and corporate decision makers who are equally struggling with this sense of aporia. Yes, there is huge opportunity for activists in this moment of crisis, but don’t underestimate the importance of taking a breath. Make space for unhurried reflection, connect to nature, let the silence and solitude of home be a teacher, let yourself feel the plight of the most vulnerable, and use the experiment of new communication technologies to deepen our intention to be in relationship with one other. 

Note: Originally published on liminaltheology.org

The Guild for Engaged Liminality: The Promise of “Perhaps”

By Jonathan L. Best

On May 1st, I had the opportunity to participate in the first ever Zoom Invitational Meeting for the newly formed Guild for Engaged Liminality (GEL). Over 20 participants joined across numerous time zones and continents. As a founding member of GEL, the creation of the guild was the culmination of a dream that began for me nearly 3 year ago. Newly formed friendships and partnerships brought to fruition something that previously felt impossible. And yet, on the first of May, the impossible became possible, which I think is a fitting analogy for liminality. The creation of GEL marks an important liminal threshold for me. One that marks both an ending and a beginning. The culmination of one dream and the beginning of another.

I consider this guild as a unique opportunity to explore transition and change in a variety of ways, which was reflected in the immense diversity that marked the first meeting of this guild. Speaking as a participant, I found it was truly remarkable and lifegiving. The meeting confirmed something I discovered long ago, there is amazing beauty and wonder within liminality. Particularly in the way liminality can bring together such a fantastic array of people passionate about encountering what’s in-between the known and the unknown.

I’m excited by exploring what occurs in-between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, especially with others who share the same passion. For liminality encourages me to continually practice radical openness toward others, toward other perspectives, and toward other ideas through engaging with and in-between ideas, spaces, peoples, and cultures. Together we’re responding to the call of the unconditional as theologian Paul Tillich put it, immersing ourselves into the liquid world described by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and living within what philosopher John Caputo often names as the flux.

Speaking of Caputo, another term that resonates with me is the idea of “perhaps.” I think it’s a helpful way to describe liminality and the future of the guild. The beauty of liminality is that the future isn’t prescribed. There is always something more going in liminality than we can possibly imagine. “Perhaps” encourages us to leave the safety of what we know, the nostalgia for a time or place we thought to be better, or the comfort of systems and precepts we desperately cling to. It’s a radical openness to the present, particularly to all the people, places, and ideas that we encounter in our daily lives. And it’s this radical openness that I envision for the guild. It’s a radical openness for one another, which encourages us to make room for the perpetual other. Each day we cross the threshold of “perhaps,” not knowing what the day will bring or who (or what) we might encounter.

Liminality, as I see it, is the embodiment of “perhaps.” Again, this radical opening to the present moment is exciting and even terrifying as we open ourselves to the unknown. Whether good or bad, liminality prompts our imaginations with a promise too alluring to ignore—there’s just something about liminality, its transition and change, its betweenness, which is enticing. For me, this enticement is the excitement of saying yes to the future. To conclude, it’s this saying yes to the future, of being open to “perhaps” and wherever that may lead us as a guild, that I find so infinitely fascinating and joy bringing.

Contact the guild: engagedliminality@gmail.com

Note: Originally posted on liminaltheology.org