What Is Liminal Space and Why It’s Our New Normal

What Is Liminal Space and Why It's Our New Normal

We stand on the threshold, under the cloud of unknowing.

After 9-11 life was totally altered, for all of us. As a writer, I sat and stared at my manuscript wondering if anyone would ever read a novel again. Should I even bother. My husband had been traveling—not to New York, but to Connecticut. When he finally got home late on Friday, there was relief. But normality escaped us. It escaped everyone.

Then in those next few days, a friend offered me some insight. It came in the words of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest whose teaching is like that of the first St. Francis: empty yourself, be compassionate of others, especially those that are socially marginalized. Okay. How do I do that when I am angry and confused.

Rohr spoke of liminal space—and despite my many years of study and reading, those were words I had never heard. He defined it as: a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else… It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 
- Richard Rohr

Now I had a label for what I was feeling, what millions were feeling: liminal space—this terrible cloud of unknowing.

It was a terrible time—but ever so slowly we went back to work, children back to school and life haltingly proceeded. My husband had lost a co-worker who had been at the hotel attached to one of the towers. His body was never found. More and more images of that day were released and they stuck us all in this new and frightening liminal space. It was some horrible new norm, but all we could do was go on. For many—even that did not happen. There was too much pain and sorrow to allow for moving forward. Adjustments were indescribable and unlivable.

When I finally sat at the keyboard and worked again on my novel, I injected the concept of liminal space. It felt right. My character was truly living there.

But you know what? Often—we all are. Because we are always waiting for something: a job, a pregnancy, a graduation, a diagnosis, an acceptance letter, even a death; or a yes from someone who is holding what feels like the rest of our lives over our heads until the yes comes through. Until then, we are under that cloud of unknowing.

Regardless, there is often good news also, just as there was post-9-11. We saw, heard and felt the warmth, love, understanding and giving of many Americans who did whatever they could to help those who had lost someone. Later it was young men and women who joined our volunteer army, feeling that was the best way to give.

Certainly liminal space always challenges us humans. We are rarely free of the unknowing—because ah, yes, we are mortal and have no knowledge of the date of our demise. That’s a given. But it can be used to power our love of self (taking care of our bodies) and love of those we live and work with. For how much better to offer understanding, honesty and friendship on a daily basis—because who really knows what the next hours will bring.

Pain, trouble, even threatened violence can provide all of us with teachable moments. Though we find ourselves in liminal space, on the threshold of something unknowable, we forge ahead: the cancer patient who goes into remission and dedicates her time to helping other patients; the teacher who takes extra time to work with the very student who upsets his classroom; the doctor or nurse who enters the clinic despite life-threats; the cop on the beat who does all he can to make certain-sure before using deadly force; the mother, father, neighbor, citizen who listens and evaluates any situation before making a judgment or rising to anger.

After 9-11 Rohr reminded us that both Christian and Muslim mystics preferred the language of darkness. That is: they were most at home in the realm of not-knowing. In such darkness, Rohr writes, things are more spacious and open to creative response. We are more open to letting in God or blessed, positive thoughts–just like the cancer patient who is grateful for every day and turns darkness into light. This from the Persian mystic Hafiz:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft.

My voice so tender, my need of God, absolutely clear.

Finally, in this time of questioning, where we find ourselves often divided, even from friends and loved ones who feel and think differently than we do, try to accept and live in the cloud of unknowing. Try to move a bit closer to the other side or try to find something they share with you. It can be very challenging and just downright hard. But remember, you are both in liminal space, not truly knowing all.

Literature–inspirational books, poetry, memoirs, reflections–can serve as guides. There is actually a website devoted to liminal space that can help lift that cloud.

Music allows cultures to come together sharing dance, songs and just the joy of listening. And recently I saw the new film The Hundred-Foot Journey which underlines that people and cultures that are vastly different can cross the threshold and come to a place were there is not only knowing, but sharing and love. Because we have no choice but to often live on the threshold, uncertain of which path to take. We exist in this liminal space, a new normal that we must accept and work with so the cloud of unknowing will be transformed into one of understanding.

Thanks always to Father Richard Rohr

Thanks to Google Images

What Is Liminal Space and Why It's Our New Normal

4 thoughts on “What Is Liminal Space and Why It’s Our New Normal

  1. I find this BOOMER HIGHWAY very enlightening, as I was sitting on an American flight from Kennedy to Los Angeles at 8:15 AM on 9/11. Everyone on this flight would eventually see the drama that was unfolding at the World Trade Center as the smoke billowed over the city. The pilot got on the intercom to tell us there were some serious problems in mid town, and by 9:30 flights were canceled and there was panic everywhere….the unknown.
    Were we under attack? Someone heard that the White House had been hit, others were saying there was an invasion going on, there were armed guards popping up everywhere at the airport. Richard Rohr’s description of “anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing” couldn’t have been more true. But within the panic and fear there was a certain bond that formed among all of us, be it patriotism or just human kind. Because we all had the same cloud of unknowing, but somehow we all stayed focused to try and help one another get through it…..and we did. But that day we all learned something, and, hopefully, we continue to do so……

    • Hi Bill. We continue to find ourselves in places of unknowing. We wait for the “yes” or the things we want in our lives. Unknowing gives us the chance to believe and have faith–in our very selves and the universe. And I know you do that. Thanks for your comment. Beth

  2. I live in this space everyday of my life. I have always lived in this space, even as a child, not even knowing until I was an adult what it meant to live in the unknowing.
    I grew up with a fatal illness. I live now with that illness and another illness. Both of them at any time can and someday will take my life.
    I live each day between doctors visits wondering what the next set of tests will reveal, if this will be the final day that states I am truly going into total heart failure or will something else pop up. Each year I go to the eye doctor, waiting to see how bad my eyes have gotten from the previous year, wondering when will the ultimate diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy will come about.
    I’ve had diabetes for 37 years this month and I’ve always been warned of the dangers of complications what can and will happen to my body. No matter how good a care I take of myself, diabetes will wear me down. Being that I spent many years without insurance and was unable to probably care for myself, I was faced with complications at age 38.
    I am now extremely diligent with my diabetes but it will not correct the problems I already have.
    Therefore, my body is breaking down. Each visit to the doctor brings something different. I never know what it’s going to be and my life is constantly in this liminal state.
    I’ve learned to live there. I’ve learned to not get to anxious about visits to the doctor. I’ve learned that there is only so much I can do. My body is going to act of it’s accord based on genetics, past influences, current diseases and of course you have to just keep going.
    Some people feel as I’ve adopted a defeatist attitude but those people aren’t sitting there with the doctors month after month or watching test results come back every few weeks, those people don’t understand the 15 different medications I must take everyday or the way my body feels at the end of the work week.
    Each of us must learn to accept where we are in our souls, our spirit if you will. Each of us must learn to find ways to get through our days and nights and try to pass on love, caring, knowledge and hope to our children.
    It’s only been in this last year when I realized that I wasn’t going to get any better, that I was actually only going to continue to get worse that I felt I’d actually accepted this space I’d spent my life living in.

    • Beautifully said. I am encouraging you to read more from Richard Rohr, or to go back up to this post and click on the link to liminal space WEBSITE. Read what they have to offer. Maybe you could even
      begin a dialogue with someone there. Wishing you the best as always, Beth

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