I recently learned about the concept of liminal space and it gave me a whole new perspective on empathy. Most of us have experienced this space, we simply didn’t know it had a name.
The term liminal is derived from the latin limen which means “threshold” and originally pertained to rituals. The idea was, in performing a ritual, a person was standing at the threshold of their previous life, mindset, position or status having not yet entered into their new life, mindset, position or status. For example, a person going through an ordination ritual before becoming a priest is said to be in liminal space, standing at the threshold of their priesthood.
The term has since expanded outside of ritual and has taken on a broader context referring to any space between the certainty of the old and the uncertainty of the new. It’s the space between what no longer is and what will be. A good analogy would be the travel required for vacation. When you leave your nine-to-five behind for a week in Tahiti, there is a period of time when you are no longer at work but not yet on a beach. You are traveling. You are living in the liminal space of TSA checks, cramped seating and questionable food.
Liminal space is obviously experienced in much more significant ways, like the space between losing a job or a relationship and finding a new one; or the space between mental health and mental health, also known as mental disorder. And while the term liminal space has been re-assigned to different scenarios over the years, the nature of the space remains. It is uncomfortable. It is a threshold we are not readily willing to bump our toes up against. Especially in our increasingly busy Western society, we are uneasy with anything that would slow us down enough to actually feel our feelings. We prefer not dealing with the tension and anxiety that thrive in the spaces between what we’ve always known and the future.
This tension used to be more commonly seen as natural and even necessary, and for good reason. Liminal space is often the catalyst for greater resolve and greater faith. Not particularly faith in God, but faith in faith itself. Not a resolve to be right, but a resolve to be open to the unknown. This is why history and anthropology books are littered with stories of ritual and rites of passage. Our ancestors understood that to stand at the threshold is to symbolically stand with the generations who believe seeds of change can only be planted in the in-between. For it is not change that we should fear but never changing.
Which leads me back to empathy. I’ve experienced the discomfort of liminal space – the unknowing and the unnerving. But it has born in me an empathy for those whose liminal space is now.
We are living in a time where we are surrounded by human beings caught in a liminal space that was actually created by us. Specifically, I’m talking about the LGBT community as well as immigrants and refugees, but there are certainly other groups we have ostracized. These people have stepped up to the threshold and await a rite of passage, and yet we hold them there. We are holding people in a liminal space because we are not comfortable making space for them in our lives. We are forcing people to spend their lives in limbo while we move about freely because we are afraid that letting someone out of liminal space is going to put us back in captivity to our own discomfort.
Liminal space was not meant to be a permanent dwelling. It was meant to be a season where we experience the labor pains of rebirth, where we acknowledge the old but prepare to embrace the new. I think what needs to happen, and what I believe is the root of social change, is a joining. We need to step into the liminal space with those we’ve left in exile. We need to walk around in the shoes of the marginalized and oppressed and feel at the deepest level the tension. Because it is in this tension we will learn that it is not others who need a new kind of faith and resolve, it is us.
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