Updated: Apr 4
Liminality has been at the forefront of many people's minds, even if they have been unaware. Simply, a liminal stage is a state of being where one feel that they're transitioning between two important phases of their life. In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.
Embracing Liminality: How to Create Your Own New Normal
Since the lockdowns began last year, there’s not a morning that I woke up feeling right about myself. I know it’s not me; it’s the pandemic. But doubts linger. I’m sure you’re familiar. “Am I living?” used to be an occasional question. Now, it’s become this daily skeptical response to the new reality we’re in.
Every day feels like self-directed violence, attempting to find solace in the limited possibilities of the current times. Each night oddly becomes a relief as I dive deep into the existential spiral. Overthinking has become a source of blind comfort and artificial control in this cyclical uncertainty.
In anthropology, these present conditions qualify as liminality—a relatively foreign concept that merely sounds like a fancy way of saying we’re in limbo. But liminality and being in limbo are different. Although both are generally defined as a transitional place or state, being in limbo implies being trapped in what isn’t “normal” whereas liminality is that space between no longer and not yet. It is a passage of absolute ambiguity that usually appears during a promising upheaval (yes, this pandemic has potential).
Liminality Through the Years
The word liminal means “a state, stage, or period of transition.” It comes from the Latin root word limen, which means threshold. The word liminal was first used in English in 1884. James Sully, a psychologist, coined the term liminal intensity. It is the threshold or a certain degree of intensity that every stimulus must reach before making significant sensation results. He used the term in his book Illusions, a psychological study about the “illusions of the normal and of the abnormal condition.”
The most notable pioneering study of liminality was published in the early 1900s by the underrated anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep. His book Le Rites de Passage (Rites of Passage) discussed liminality as an experience-based state of transition. Here, social and cultural rites of passage such as coming of age rituals and marriage were cited as liminal experiences. The three stages of liminality were also introduced: rites of separation, liminal period, and rites of incorporation. But Van Gennep’s works weren’t taken seriously during his time.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that another anthropologist, Victor Turner, rediscovered and expanded the interpretation of the concept. In his book Liminality and Communitas, he defined individuals in liminality as “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.” Turner believed that such a state “is not a mere acquisition of knowledge but a change in being.” However, he viewed liminality as a routine shakeup. He associated it with creativity, play, fantasy, and modern consumer societies (art, theater, etc.).
In 2014, anthropologist and social scientist Bjørn Thomassen published a book called Liminality and the Modern where he expressed his disapproval of such a non-systemic perspective. He argued that liminality shouldn’t be celebrated or wished for. It should be “duly and carefully problematized,” especially in this modern age where we get excited about anything that’s new and indicative of constant “innovation”.
Thomassen also provided the simplest definition for liminality. The best description for this vague transformational phase we’re in due to COVID-19. “Liminality explains nothing. Liminality is. It happens. It takes place.” And every individual reacts to these experiences in different ways that cannot be easily predicted—perhaps like the sudden rise of TikTok use even among boomers?
The COVID-19 Pandemic as a Liminal Moment
At this point in the pandemic, we can’t really say we’ve already entered the new normal. We’re still in the middle of what’s no longer (the maskless normal we were used to) and what’s not yet (whatever it is that will happen after who-knows-what). Just think about the last time you planned something. I’m sure it was preceded or followed by the phrase “when things get back to normal.” First, that’s never going to happen. Second, that shows how detached we are from the idea of this present-day as our new fixed reality.
We will never return to pre-pandemic normal. But that doesn’t mean we’ll forever be social distancing either. We’re simply headed towards something new, and no one has any idea how it will be like. All we know is how the present looks like. The vaccines don’t necessarily eliminate the need for social distancing, there’s no known cure yet, more variants are spreading, and the cases keep spiking up across the globe.
As Bjørn Thomassen said, these things don’t explain anything, but they are issues to be duly and carefully problematized. The alternative ways we’re going about our day-to-day lives now aren’t innovations to settle for. Like Thomassen wrote in his book, liminality leads to “nullifying boredom, senselessness, and normative nihilism. And this we cannot live with, in the long run.” We can’t keep entertaining ourselves with one-minute video clips or live without an ounce of hope for the future.
These are symptoms of disorientation which is expected during liminal moments. It also explains why many of us still find it tough to adjust to these current times. We’re at a standstill and despite our efforts to make the most of it, we won’t ever achieve satisfaction. We’ll continue to long for closer social and physical connections, mobility, and clarity about our now challenged identities. The pandemic as a liminal moment isn’t only an evolutionary phase for society as a whole.
It is a rite of passage that’s unique for every person. It’s mostly an experience of looking inwards. It may start with questioning your choices in life, your current position or status, your beliefs, your aspirations, and the authenticity of your personality that varies depending on your company. The lack of freedom in the outside world baits our minds into entering infinite introspection. It’s a paradoxical yet crucial part of liminality—searching for meaning amidst a time where nothing makes sense. It’s a commitment one must make.
Commitment to Liminality: Advice to Live in a Liminal Way
Commitment to liminality isn’t the mere acceptance of our lives taking a pause. It’s surrendering
to our system’s natural response to the circumstances, which is reinventing ourselves from within. It’s an uncomfortable situation that’s hard to look forward to. But there’s no escaping it. Even if you drown it with new indoor-friendly hobbies or other “productive” lockdown activities, you’ll still be faced with identity troubles inevitable during this liminal moment.
Let Arnold van Gennep’s three stages of liminality serve as your guide through this journey.
The Three Stages of Liminality
1. Pre-Liminal Rites: Separation
Also known as the death stage, this is where an individual or group detaches from previous fixed points in the social structure or cultural conditions. In the context of these times, this is where we let go of the pre-pandemic normal. This is the beginning of accepting what’s no longer. I’m sure many of us have already gone through this disconnection. We’re now used to the mandatory use of masks, proper etiquette around other people, and digital alternatives to tasks that used to require going outside.
2. Liminal Period: Transition
Separation isn’t really the challenging part of this whole process. It’s easy to accept what’s no longer when you have actual laws to keep you from going back. It’s transitioning that’s difficult, especially when the period you’re moving to is still unknown. This stage will test our thoughts, feelings, and values associated with our positions from the previous norms. We will be forced to think about these things over and over, making liminality a period of reflection.
You’re not expected to make physical adjustments to your life in this realm where there are few to zero attributes of the past and what’s to come. This is simply a moment that many people these days classify as self-work or self-reevaluation. It is an agonizing phase nobody would want to be in if they had a choice, but this deconstruction is a key step in reconstructing our own new normal. It’s completely fine to allow yourself to disintegrate during this period. You don’t need to figure things out.
The goal is to know yourself better. Define your personal goals, needs, and interests. Establish a strong sense of self. Learn to be true to yourself without the pressure from what the post-liminal or post-pandemic world is going to be.
3. Post-Liminal Rites: Incorporation
Also known as the “new birth,” this final stage of liminality is when we reach stability. It’s where “the passage is consummated” as Victor Turner puts it. Here, society starts setting new customary norms or ethical standards. We behave accordingly with the incorporation of our virtues formed during the reflection stage. You might not have everything figured out yet, but you now have mobility and a better sense of self and direction. You have enough materials to create something special on a blank canvas.
The Bottom Line
Liminality is a constant state of progression, a stage where we collectively feel that we're transitioning between two important phases of life. It is essential to rememver that our minds never slow down. We challenge the status quo. We feel emotions in cycles. Things do not make sense in every moment, and that is okay. While every day can present the chance of doubt, or even self-directed violence, we have the ability to find solace despite the challenges of current times. Embrace liminality: focus on the present and if you want to play judge, compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
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About the Author
Learning is something I’m very passionate about. It’s the reason why I quit college a couple semesters before graduating. I wanted to dive into the actual playing field of knowledge. I found it in writing. I’m not going to lie, I once thought I’d be writing philosophical musings about life coming into the industry but I was faced with much more technical topics. Suddenly I was writing about startups and their digital products which I didn’t have any idea about.
Left with no choice as it was my only way to support myself, I learned to love these topics. I gained adept knowledge in these concepts in less than a year. Then I was no longer scared of taking on more foreign topics or fields. But I’ll admit I’m scared of writing what I thought I’ve always wanted to.