If 2020 was a year of transformation forced upon all of us by a pandemic and political and social unrest, then what is 2021? A continuation of the same or something different entirely? We see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still very much in the tunnel. Are we in limbo, or is it something else?
I don’t know what life will show me
But I know what I’ve seen
I can’t see where life will lead me
But I know where I’ve been
– Jimmy Cliff, Sitting Here in Limbo
“Limbo” originally was the region on the border between Heaven and Hell, now commonly thought of as being stalled in a period of transition. Plenty of us felt like 2020 was Limbo. But you can make a case for it to be something more.
This place of transformation between one place or phase and the other is also known as “liminal space”. I’d first heard the phrase from Richard Rohr, who points to Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process as the origin. Rituals seem straightforward: sweet sixteen parties, bar mitzvahs, commencement ceremonies and funerals are all rites of passage signaling a change. But what of the passage itself? Passage is motion, not stalling. And that’s where liminality comes in.
“Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold” 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. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.” – Wikipedia
The passage through “liminal space” infers movement between phases of life. This seems a more focused use of the time, don’t you think? Passage is high agency, decide what to be and go be it liminality. Stalled is low agency, waiting for things to happen to us limbo. You see this in how people use their time during the pandemic. Some bought and used bicycles and hiking boots, others hoarded toilet paper and literally waited for shit to happen.
Life is about transformation and passage. If we’re all in this transition between one place and another, are we using this liminal space to proactively move into a better place or are we simply waiting for things to open up again? The thing about passages is you have some measure of control over the direction you’re going in. We ought to have something to say about which threshold we cross on the other side, don’t you think?