Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Rhonda Collins, I Start Wondering Columnist
Sometimes when we are in the midst of a change from one position or stage of life to another, we can feel very anxious and start to believe that we have lost our sense of who we are and our purpose in life. This transition might start with a job loss or the loss of a family member. It could be the birth of a child or children leaving the nest. Or perhaps it’s moving from college to your first real job or from a 40-year career to your retirement.
At these times we can feel lacking in direction and vision for the future. We can feel sad, awkward, and fearful of what’s to come. We can feel unimportant and unproductive. We might even feel a loss or confusion about our identity.
Maybe you feel that way now. If so, respect the transition and celebrate! You might be thinking, “Celebrate? Are you nuts? I feel sad and angry, and like I might have a panic attack any moment now!” But honoring this time and celebrating its ending is common in many cultures throughout the world. Why honor and commemorate these in-between states? Because these times are not considered simply unproductive transitions—they are vitally important, transformative periods of our lives, worthy of recognition and celebration.
An Important Transition
In anthropological terms, life transitions—often called rites of passage—are known as liminal periods, and individuals going through these stages of life are said to be experiencing liminality. The word liminal comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means the threshold (as in the bottom of a doorway). When standing in a doorway, a person has left one room but is not quite yet in another room.
Liminality is one of my favorite anthropological terms. Originally used in psychology, Arnold Van Gennep introduced the concept of liminality to the field of anthropology in his 1909 book, Les Rites de Passage. In the 1960s Victor Turner, an anthropologist, expanded on the idea in his book, The Ritual Process – Structure, and Anti-Structure, to explain that these liminal periods typically involve a transformation in the person. That change could be moving to a different social status, a change in knowledge and/or maturity, or a relocation of where one lives.
Moving Away from the Ordinary
The basic idea is that coming-of-age ceremonies, marriages, and other transitional milestones in a person’s life are often marked by a liminal period that includes separation from the “ordinary.” Ordinary is defined as whatever might have been a normal routine for that person and culture.
Following that liminal period, the individual eventually reassimilates back into ordinary society, but in a different, better “position.” Often, there is a ceremony that includes special clothing, food, or other traditions to celebrate the “transformed” person re-entering ordinary life. The ceremony marks this time as an important milestone and transition for that person.
For example, in some primitive societies in decades past, teenagers would go through a coming-of-age ritual in which they were separated from their families when they reached puberty. They lived in a separate home with other teenagers and a shaman or other village leaders and were taught the ways of adult living. Then when the leaders felt they were ready, the village had a big celebration and the youth were reintroduced into society, with all the rights and privileges of adults in that community.
In the U.S., we might think of college or dating as a similar liminal period. The college/dating days often happen away from family and the person is transformed over time. The liminal period then ends with some sort of ceremony, such as graduation (where the graduate wears a cap and gown) or a wedding (with all the traditional clothing, food, and other marriage traditions). After the festivities, the individuals move back into ordinary society, but with a different status.
Making Peace with the In-Between Status
Whatever the transition or culture, individuals who find themselves in liminality – that in-between status – can feel uncomfortable, confused, and strange. It is a stressful, uncertain time. The liminals generally look forward to being fully transitioned to their new status, even though the unknown components of that new ordinary can be scary.
In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, we have much knowledge at our fingertips to help us understand and mediate our liminal times and to expedite our transition back to the ordinary, whether it be online job searches or magazine articles on dealing with loneliness. However, because our liminal periods are not noticed or recognized as they are in some cultures (much less celebrated with a special event), the liminality can be isolating and painful because we often go through these periods alone.
Furthermore, because some cultures, such as the United States, tend to associate activity and productivity with importance, we can believe that these transition times are unimportant because we are not seeing “results.” When we are in between jobs or spending our time caregiving for a loved one, we can feel not only lost and uncomfortable but also that our time is unproductive and insignificant.
We might even feel that what we do right now doesn’t matter. As discussed in “The Butterfly Effect” by Andy Andrews, we must remember that even the small, seemingly trivial actions we take can have a huge impact on ourselves or others. “Every single thing you do matters,” says Andrews.
So, even if you feel useless, know that this time is important. During this transition, you may be spending more time with certain people, whether it’s your grandkids or the clerk at the convenience store than you ever will again. You may have an opportunity to impact those people’s lives in ways you never knew you could or a chance to do so again.
If you are out of your ordinary routine and find you have more free time, don’t succumb to the ease of binge-watching television, spending hours on Facebook, or compulsive sleeping. Take the opportunity to ramp up your reading, writing, exercising, and reflection during this time.
Honor Your Liminal Times
My point is to appreciate, respect, and make good use of these liminal times – the awkward transitions, the uncomfortable gaps, and the days when you feel like you have no real identity. Remind yourself that you may now be liminal, but soon you will feel “ordinary” again.
Change is painful and pain is changeful. You are not just transitioning to another phase, you are transforming into a different, better way of life. You will come out of this liminal stage as a new you, just as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
Most importantly, don’t forget to mark the end of your liminality and celebrate your transformation!
How is your life-changing? How are you preparing to welcome not only the new butterfly stage of life but also the caterpillar transition? Please share how you are honoring your liminality.