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