This is the time of year when it is common for me to get phone calls from parents of graduating high school seniors. While the details are different with each of these calls, there is one common theme to them all. The parents want to know why when graduation should be such a happy occasion, they are seeing such high levels of stress in their high school senior. “One moment my son/daughter is on top of the world, and the next they are in the depths of worry and despair. Are these mood swings normal?” I explain that what their son or daughter is experiencing is indeed normal and to be expected, and that the reason it is so is because their son or daughter is currently in a liminal space.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word limens which means “limit or threshold.” Author and theologian Richard Rohr defines the liminal space that is experienced when we go through a significant transition this way, “It is when you have left, or are about to leave, 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.” Ancient cultures referred to liminal space as a “crazy time,” which seems to be exactly what the parents I spoke to on the phone this week were witnessing.
All cultures have rite of passage ceremonies to mark liminal transitions. For example, in addition to graduations, there are rites of passages throughout our lives for weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, and baby naming or baptism ceremonies. Liminal transitions also occur in many other ways that are not always marked by official ceremonies. Starting or leaving a job, moving, retirement, beginning or ending a relationship, or a significant change in one’s health are all examples of liminal transitions.
There are two essential factors all people need when they find themselves in a liminal space: spirituality and community. These two factors will provide direction and support in the midst of this vulnerable, “crazy” time. Spirituality is what defines “true north” for us all the time, but especially in times of transition. It is what defines and grounds our core values and beliefs, and may or may not be connected to a religious faith. Community is our network of friends and family, the people we can turn to when we need support.
This is why all rites of passage ceremonies, including graduations, involve both a time for reflection and inspiration (spirituality) and a way for the community to jointly celebrate the important life transition that is being marked. The community gathers to both celebrate and support and show commitment to the person who is crossing the important threshold, as they move from some kind of previous “normal” to a new and yet undefined “normal.” So if you receive an invitation to a graduation party this year know that it is actually a gathering to acknowledge a young person’s passage through a liminal space, and you now know the importance of showing up and offering your encouragement and support.
We are all wise to remember the words that are written in the photograph above, no matter what type of transition we, or someone we love, are going through, “Honor the space between no longer and not yet.”