We’re in a ‘liminal’ moment, rather than ‘in limbo’

The news right now is full of words like limbo. Perhaps it would be more optimistic to look at this summer as “liminal,” not “in limbo.”

A friend said to me recently that she felt as if she were “in limbo.” She hasn’t seen her parents in months, but still can’t decide whether it would be irresponsible to visit them. She has been working, but projects that she can’t do at home have been piling up. Her children are nearly done with online school for the year, but she still doesn’t have summer plans.

Will any camps be running? Will it be safe to travel? Will things be different in the fall?

The news right now is full of words like limbo, “an intermediate or transitional place or state” or “a state of uncertainty,” according to Merriam-Webster.

We are in a holding pattern, like planes circling above an airport, waiting for clearance to land. Or we are betwixt and between, “neither one thing nor the other.” Betwixt is an Old English preposition that actually just means “between.” In Modern English, then, we are “between and between,” the redundancy suggesting a high degree of immobility.

In the jargon of literary criticism, these in-between states are called interstitial – an interstice is a small space between something else, like the cracks in a sidewalk.

One interstitial word stresses the possibility of transformation rather than stasis: liminal. It comes from limen, the Latin word for “threshold” or “doorway,” making liminality a period of transition from one condition to another.

According to cultural anthropologists who popularized liminality in the 1960s, rites of passage are the archetypal liminal experiences. Participants go through a disorienting period when they are neither what they were nor what they will be – the time between college finals and graduation, for example, when young people are not students anymore but not yet working adults, either.

Whole societies can experience liminality as a result of revolutions, natural disasters, and – as several journalists and anthropologists have noted recently – pandemics.

Cataclysms like these usher in “an age of uncertainty and contingency ... in which old certainties [lose] their validity and where new ones [are] still not ready,” as anthropologist Bjørn Thomassen explains. Liminal states precipitate change, whether for better or for worse.

Perhaps it would be more optimistic, though less poetic, to look at this summer as “liminal,” not “in limbo”; to think of ourselves not as trapped in an unpleasant stasis, but in the middle of a period of upheaval with great potential. If the anthropologists are right, we have a chance to decide what sort of “normal” we want to return to, what the world will look like once we step through the post-pandemic doorway.

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