The concept of liminality always intrigues me. The idea of being in a place ‘in between’. I’ve most often been aware of being in such a space in the course of my career. In one way or another it has become apparent that it is time to leave a current job. What I’m doing no longer fits for some reason. It’s time to try something new. But what? What should that new something be? Different tasks on the same campus? New responsibilities? New campus? I sense it’s time for change but the what, when, or where isn’t obvious. Liminal space.
It’s one of the recurring bits of experience I share with graduating students who are looking for their first job. This is an uncomfortable place to be. School is nearly over but there’s no job yet. I reassure them that something will work out. It may or may not be what they expected. It’s quite likely it won’t be on their time frame, but they will find a job. What I suggest is they start to develop skills to cope with this uncertainty, because it will happen over and over again in their lifetimes. And in many ways the career transitions are the easier ones. Whether it’s work, relationships, living arrangements, or any number of other life events, we will all experience this feeling of being between what was and what will be. And even though we know it will happen, can reasonably expect it at transitions, can learn to be patient as things move forward at a pace not our own, it is never a truly comfortable place for most people. I share my experiences with this in-between space to help them understand it’s normal and find ways to cope.
It seems to me that we are all struggling with living through an extended period of liminal time right now. Our world is not what it was for most of us and while we have adjusted to make this work, we don’t know what comes next or when it will arrive. And it’s not comfortable, but it is normal.
That’s why I was so glad I ran across this Twitter thread recently. Dr. Aisha Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She began her thread this way, “The 6 month mark in any sustained crisis is always difficult. We have all adjusted to this ‘new normal’, but might now feel like we’re running out of steam.” She shares that in her work in disaster zones, she has learned that this is normal. She has learned that it appears like “clockwork.” However, it also dissipates like clockwork.
She goes on, “So I don’t fight it anymore. I don’t beat myself up over it. I just know that it will happen and trust that the dip will pass. In the meantime, I try to support my mental and emotional health.” We’ve made the first round of adjustments. We’ve responded to the first crisis and planned for the next round, and we know there is more to come. It’s hard to trust that we’ll find our way to the other side.
Even though I haven’t had experience in a disaster zone as she has, I recognize the experience she is describing. It’s that space between what was and what will be. It’s easy to think no one has ever experienced anything like this. On one level, of course that’s true and everyone of us has a combination of experiences and responsibilities that are challenging and perhaps unique. And yet, everyone of us has lived through the discomfort of liminal time whether we called it that or not, And everyone of us developed a set of skills to help us find our way through to the other side.
I encourage you to stop and think back to your experience of being betwixt and between. What was helpful to you? How might you think about those experiences to coach others who have yet to have as much experience as you to help them understand this is normal and to begin to develop habits, practices, and skills that will help us get to the other side.
I’ll end with the tweet that ended Dr. Ahmad’s thread. “So, dear friends, do not despair of the 6 month wall. It’s not permanent, nor will it define you in this period of adversity. Trust that the magic that helped you through the first phase is still there. Take a deep breath and a pause.”