(Ed. Note: there are no answers in this essay, just thoughts and ideas)
I’ve been feeling an increasing sense of what I can only describe as liminality recently. I don’t mean that in any sort of dystopian way, like the world is becoming one big waiting room for Armageddon or something—rather it’s a feeling that I inhabit a sort of liminal reality of my own. Or that I am that liminal reality.
It’s somewhat of an extension of a line of thinking I started and let get played out years ago that my role is to help other people complete their stories, rather than constructing my own lived story. A kind of human marginalia. When I look back to my childhood and young adult years through this lens, many things become clearer, as do some of my present behaviors.
This whole line of inquiry was brought back to the foreground by this recent piece by Mo Perry. Go read it, please, it’s awesome. I’ll wait.
In quotes like this:
“In acting classes, young performers are taught something called Neutral Mask — how to make themselves a blank slate, free of any distinctive gait or physical characteristics.”
I see liminality laid out in an approachable way anyone can see and understand. Young actors are taught to do something many of us do every day without realizing it, exist in the space between.
I feel like the idea of liminality gets a bad rap in the broader culture. Do a quick internet search for the word and what you’ll see is mostly creepy pictures of creepy places. Liminal spaces are transitional. They exist and, at the same time, don’t. They are those places we travel through on our way to somewhere else.
Everyday examples would include parking lots, entry halls, even the sidewalk between your car and the front door. Waiting rooms, security lines, and even hallways are further examples that might resonate.
A liminal space is anywhere that is no longer the place you left, but not yet the place you’re going.
Labeling a place has the same impact as labeling a person. It provides us with a convenient heuristic that helps us know how we should prepare to inhabit that space. The label tells us how comfortable we should or should not be there.
What about labeling stories? Can identifying this story line as yours help someone else know what role they’re supposed to play? How does that story differ from the reality you see in front of you? What about situations where two people interact? Is that moment yours, or theirs? Mo again:
“What does it take to change the story you live within? First I suppose you need to see it for what it is — be able to discern it as a story in the first place, and not just the fabric of reality.”
That represents a level of clarity I’m not sure most people have, at least not on an ongoing basis. It takes an understanding of the role our brains play in how we perceive reality, vs how much of that reality originates in our brains. It also takes an ability to step back from these seemingly mundane daily interactions and look at them from a different perspective.
Then we have the sticky subject of labels. Labeling a person can introduce biases, conscious or otherwise, into the equation. On the other hand, once I had the label “HSP” for those traits of mine I was investigating, so many aspects of my life started to make sense. This enabled me to move forward, adapting my reality as necessary based on that knowledge.
Does it work the same when you label a story? What about labeling a place? Does it change how you show up in that place or for that story? In some cases, I hope so. Liminal spaces are notorious for being high crime areas (no, literally. Look up the stats for muggings, assaults, etc., more often than not they occur in these types of places). So understanding that you need to crank up your situational awareness when traversing a liminal area can only help.
What happens if you label someone’s story as your own? What have you just done to that person’s understanding of what they thought—until that very moment—was their lived reality?
One last thing to toss into this veritable smorgasbord of an essay, but something I feel relates—science is figuring out that yes indeed, reality may just be a figment of our imaginations. Or perhaps more appropriately, a pigment of our hallucinations.
I have So. Much. More. To say on that, but wanted to drop it in here since the topic of reality vs. story was already in play. This quote is the one that came to mind, specifically:
“This idea, called relational meaning, is familiar in quantum physics. As Carlo Rovelli beautifully explains in his latest book Helgoland, nature is not filled with permanent objects but with relations between quantities. When an electron is not interacting with anything, it has no physical properties. An electron only has a position or velocity relative to something else.”
As an aside, I highly recommend reading Rovelli. He writes so cogently and approachably about topics that are so far beyond my grasp, nearly every page leaves me in awe.
What I take from the Big Think quote above is that we literally create our own reality, in real time. The tree I’m looking at between writing these sentences is only green because my brain interprets the light waves that enter my eyeballs, then compares that information with what it knows about colors and culture and other such ephemera. The result is me saying, “that’s a gorgeous green tree right there.”
(It really is, too. I think it’s a big ol’ Doug Fir…)
Where does all that leave us? The idea of a person inhabiting a liminal reality of their own makes perfectly good sense. So, the older idea of my role being as marginalia in other people’s stories seems…plausible. And my newer understanding of myself as liminal, with a reality that varies depending on who I’m interacting with, and where and when that interaction is taking place—yep, that checks out too.