About 18 months ago at the end of a retreat I was told that I was in a liminal space. These words came after sharing my story with a group of trusted friends and letting them reflect back to me some of their impressions.
I received their thoughts when much of what I thought I would be leading was gone and I was unsure of what the next step forward would be. There was a period of time when the only productive task that I completed each day was to pick up a load of free mulch that was provided by our electricity company, load it in the boot of our car and spread around our yard. I felt a huge achievement when I got one area of the front yard covered. This was the result of a continuous small effort day after day. In terms of achievements I wasn’t exactly climbing huge mountains.
It was during this time that I questioned if I had anything of value to offer to anyone. My eldest daughter still tells me today that that she was the only person in our family that was employed.
I then came across an article from Harvard Business Review that talked about leadership in liminal times. It began by explaining the term liminal:
The liminal term comes from Arnold van Gennep, the Belgian anthropologist who first outlined the common patterns in how cultures mark transitions from one human state to another (for example, from adolescence to adulthood). In his 1909 book The Rites of Passage he described three stages of separation from one world and entry into another. The liminal (or threshold) stage is central
During my period of liminality I couldn’t see a way forward. The best I could do was to know that, “the way behind had closed”. My life script had been altered in a way that I didn’t expect. I had a picture of how I expected life would work out and it didn’t happen that way.
Firstly I realised I was wrong.
I thought that I was strong,
I thought that anything was possible,
All I needed to do,
Was to believe enough in myself,
And, it could be done.
I thought that I was in control,
I thought that I determined my future,
All I needed to do,
Was to have enough things,
And, my world was secure.
I was wrong.
This was one of the key discoveries I have made in slightly more than 50 years of living. Admitting that I was wrong, and that I was not in control gave incredible freedom to begin to contemplate the possibilities for the future.
Commenting l on van Gennep’s work, anthropologist Victor Turner explained it as “a moment when those being moved in accordance with a cultural script were liberated from normative demands…. In this gap between ordered worlds almost anything may happen.”
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, meaning literally, “threshold.” A liminal space, the place of transition, waiting, and not knowing is:
…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.
– Richard Rohr
The “threshold” was a terrible place to have to wait at because none of my old excuses worked. There was nothing to hide behind, only the certainty that all my old protections were gone.
Secondly being wrong is not the final word.
For a while I had nothing to lead. But, then slowly I again took on some life responsibility. This was firstly for my family. There was much that I had neglected during my pre-liminal and liminal period that required my attention. I remember one day looking into the backyard and being surprised by the young man playing cricket in the backyard, it was my son. But, I had missed some important growing that had gone unnoticed by me.
In some of the most important places I had left a gaping hole that could not be fixed in an instant. There are some wounds that are bit like Humpty Dumpty’s predicament, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”. For me the coming back together was in a very different shape from what we had before.
Then, slowly I felt creativity begin to reemerge. Ideas began surfacing. Most of them totally impractical but I began allowing myself to dream again. This began my pathway back to believing that there was some hope.
Thirdly be ready for hope to emerge.
What does hope look like?
Smiles that start in my heart,
Songs that I feel in my stomach,
Shadows that cool the harsh light,
Rainbows where I know the end is close,
Dreams that are doused with love,
Ideas that are bigger than me,
Calling that knows my name.
This period was marked by a lot of uncertainty. I found it difficult to plan anything because I had no idea of what was to be next. And, because I believed I had been so wrong I hesitated to make any decision in case it ended being more disastrous than what I had just done. But, hope wouldn’t allow uncertainty to have the final word.
One of the most valuable activities was to have a retreat day with my wife. It was a day of silence, listening and talking. It led us to a discerning of the path forward for us. This discerning didn’t mean there was an immediate transformation but it did allow me to hold the liminal tension a little more easily. For me this day was the beginning of seeing the way forward but there was still a lot of uncertainty yet to come.
As hope returned new leadership opportunities emerged. I began to see any possibility with a new humility. The arrogance of self sufficiency was clearly shown to me to be an illusion. As Dickens says so well in “The Tale of Two Cities”,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.
I am able to look to that liminal period as a significant marker in my life. It’s still very close and maybe the way forward is still emerging. But, as David Whyte says, it’s during these times that transformation can begin. That without some despair, or destruction something new cannot emerge.
There are three gems that I have picked up during this time,
- Admit where things went wrong.
- Recognise that this is not the final word.
- Look for hope to emerge.