What to do in liminal space (between what was and what could be)

May 14, 2019

By John Weirick

“If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.”  
—Richard Rohr

“Our lives cannot be bound by our current status.”  

The Variable Life, chapter 50

It was snowing in South Carolina when I pulled the door shut on the moving truck.

We had just finished cleaning the empty mansion of a suburban house for the last time. I looked through the front window, and it was completely barren. The blue-walled dining room that held so many dinner parties—empty. The hallway to the kitchen where we welcomed guests and took their coats—hollow. The step-down living room where so many Netflix shows were streamed, where the biggest plants staked their claim, where after-dinner drinks were consumed lazily to countless playlists and vinyls—vacant.

A home becomes a bizarre, cold house when it’s void of personal belongings. And the day grew cold and bizarre as the Southern snow kept falling in large, wet flakes.

As that final weekend unfolded, though, my chest burned a little warmer despite the flurries and the emptiness.

Two days after we sold the house, sold a car, and packed a truck of our belongings, we drove north. We decided to take a leap into the unknown, knowing that we wouldn’t be content to play it safe the way things were going.

Of course, safe is a relative term, as is the unknown."

We did not have many answers.

But we did have one gnawing, unrelenting truth: it was time to go, and we were ready.

So even though we didn’t have a new home or guaranteed jobs in another place, we sold our house and left the city we’d called home for four years.

That fire of readiness burned within us, casting big shadows on the near-empty calendar. We would spend the holidays seeing family and friends, then begin the new year trying to establish roots and jobs in a distant city. One potential contract, hospitable friends in the city, and everything else undetermined.

We knew enough about where we wanted to be, but didn’t know how or when or through what process any of those hopes would materialize.

Would they?

We were now in liminal space.

What is Liminal Space?

The unknown is compelling and dangerously beautiful, like the open ocean or a fog-laden highway, but it’s not always so sexy.

Action and movement is sexy, and waiting is just the pits.

A lot of the unknowns we all experience are simply exercises in waiting. We wait for something to end, wait for something new to begin, wait for a breakthrough that can’t be forced.

At some point, you have to leave where you were, and at some point you’ll be fully in the next place/relationship/job/house/etc. But right now, you’re in between the two stable things.

Some kind of transition is underway, but it’s not clear what we should do, or how, or when.

This is liminal space.

Ecological theologian Sallie McFague describes this in-between, wild territory as “a space where one is available for deep change from the conventional model of living to another one.”

While this liminal space is uncomfortable, ambiguous, and uncertain, it is also freeing. It is necessary for change and growth.

The Transformative In-Between

Imagine you’re in the middle of a rickety old suspension bridge over a huge ravine. You can try to walk back to safety, but then you’ll be back where you were. Or you could try to run forward to reach the other side, but you don’t know which planks are sturdy and which are rotten. You don’t know what wild animals lurk on the other side, and those dark clouds ahead may obstruct your path.

One author who studies individual and organizational change depicts it like this:

William Bridges model of managing change from uncertainty to commitment

An imminent ending but no solid new beginning creates an abundance of uncertainty.

In that uncertainty, you experience more doubt and increased anxiety.

Confusion becomes an ever-present companion you never meant to enlist.

You feel the tension of (the illusion of) stability where you were and resistance when you try to step forward. Wouldn’t it just be easier to give up and go back?

But when you make friends with the confusion, when you welcome uncertainty as inevitable and resistance as a sign you are moving forward, something within you changes before what’s outside of you changes.

You can begin to innovate within the uncertainty. You can become more freely creative to find solutions you’ve never found before.

You can become more open, loving, and free than you could be back when things were manageable, predictable, easy.

“Transition is not just a nice way to say change. It is the inner process through which people come to terms with a change, as they let go of the way things used to be and reorient themselves to the way that things are now.”
— William Bridges

Compare with the stages of the hero’s journey, the core of every well-told story:

The Hero's Journey from known into the unknown

See that line between Known and Unknown? That’s liminal space, the in-between.

Crossing the threshold is the beginning of transformation.

All major world religions and many wisdom traditions implicitly communicate this, too:

You can’t expect to change or grow unless you cross into some kind of unknown.

Crossing Territories of Spirit

“If you go back to the etymology of the word ‘threshold,’ it comes from ‘threshing,’ which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness. There are huge thresholds in every life…

Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative. And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing…”
— poet John O’Donohue

How we cross the threshold will set the pace for how we live into the new space. This is what sets our trajectory. This is what separates reactive, untethered people from anchored, gracious people.

“We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown…

This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”
— Richard Rohr

We can’t avoid the changes life brings.

We can’t avoid pain and suffering and doubt and fear.

But we can learn to navigate them well, open-handed and open-minded, ready to adapt and learn and grow.

John Weirick is a writer on personal growth, relationships, spirituality, travel, and food and drinks. He’s the author of The Variable Life: Finding Clarity and Confidence in a World of Choices (2017), a book of stories about growing through change, conflict, and relationships. This article originally appeared on his website and is reprinted here with permission. Email john@johnweirick.com with code BETWEEN to get the book for $10 and free shipping in the U.S.

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