Understanding Liminal Space
This time of year I get several phone calls from families that are experiencing distress due to impending transitions. While the details are different with each of these calls, the common theme has to do with the anxiety and excitement a child or teen is experiencing regarding an impending transition, whether it is moving away from home for the first time, going to a new school, or starting a new grade in school ."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 this is so is that 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 various rites 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 things that all people need when they find themselves in a liminal space: unconditional love and a supportive community. These two factors make all the difference in the midst of this vulnerable, "crazy" time. We are wise to remember, too, that when one member of a family is going through liminal time, chances are it is creating a similar experience for other members of the family. Young adults leaving home for the first time aren't the only ones in the family experiencing a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and loss.
If you and/or someone you love is going through a significant transition right keep in mind the quote at the top of this column: "Honor the space between no longer and not yet." You can do this by offering them, and/or yourself, unconditional love that is calm and stable in the midst of the emotional instability that is a hallmark of liminal space.
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