One year on, and we are all still in between.
Last year about this time, I commented on the unique circumstances we found ourselves in, where the pandemic had transitioned us all into a space of liminality. Twelve months later and we are still there, more or less.
Liminality is in theory a place of transition. The word liminality comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means “on the threshold.” Being in a liminal space involves being in transition from one state to another, from the person that we were to the person that we will become. It is process of first letting go, so that we can shift states and being, and move into a new place and a new identity.
It is an incredibly useful concept, in that it can help to interpret—and navigate—any number of transitions. The original use of the term was in exploring life transitions and the rituals of tribes. In our culture, graduations, confirmations, weddings and funerals all make use of liminal concepts to support participants in navigating a shift in identity and meaning. We can think of uses of liminality in describing job and career transitions. It’s equally applicable in organizational change and transformation—in fact, organizations would be far better off if they made more conscious use of the process of liminality to guide and support transition.
What was unique about the start of the pandemic was that we transitioned into the same liminal situation at the exact same time. That awareness was not universal, nor was the experience of it, but the truth of the matter remained. As I said last year, it’s not that we are now all in the same boat; we are all in the same storm, but we have different boats piloted by people with very different levels of experience and ability.
We are still in a liminal place today. For all that has changed in the past year—we have vaccines, some people are getting them, and we can now see a place where we might move past our current reality—we are not actually there yet. That’s an experience that is taking its toll.
There was a lot about the in betweenness of the pandemic that was unnatural in the first place. For starters, it was a universal experience. Normally, liminal transitions are thought of as being applicable to an individual person, or an identifiable group, not everybody. As well, liminality is often a transition that is guided; there is a mentor or resource that overtly or subtly supports the transition. In this particular liminal transition we are together, and we are alone. There is no one watching over us or out for us, and it’s all up to us to do the best that we can.
I think it’s safe to say that for many of us, “the best we can” doesn’t feel awesome. To be fair, it is incredibly hard to live with the enormous levels of uncertainty, risk and isolation that we have all been experiencing. Some have suffered through the disease and recovered. Others endure lingering effects. A statistic I saw last week suggests that one in three Americans know someone who has died from Covid-19. Dealing with the possibility of being infected, the vigilance of protecting yourself and others, the concerns of looking after those you care about, and still trying to function in a way that feels like some semblance of normal is hard.
You can see the fraying at the edges. For all that we are in this together, it is feeling a little less so right now. People are less kind, less thoughtful, less considerate. Raw nerves sit too close to the surface. It takes very little stimulus to trigger disproportionate emotional responses. Everything feels harder and more complicated than it needs to be.
We all want this to be over. Spring is arriving, and with it some hope that we will be able to emerge from the shutdown of our current existence, to step out into the fresh air and breathe, to experience the richness of life again. But we aren’t there yet, and I think that really it is becoming incredibly frustrating. The fact that we have vaccines is wonderful, and that they were engineered as quickly as they were is nothing short of miraculous.
From where we sit today, though, getting to a vaccine feels like it was the easy part. The much harder part is the enormous logistics and communication challenge of getting it in the arms of the world. As of this past week, just 3% of the world’s population has received at least one injection. Local percentages vary, of course, proof again that the experience of the pandemic is not felt equally. Regardless, we have a lot further to go before we can truly emerge from what seems like an interminable period.
A big question is what we want that emergence to look like, collectively and individually. Worlds have shrunk, social circles have reduced, and everyone is tired of meeting and socializing on Zoom. At the same time, living within the narrow limits of our personal bubbles has become somewhat normal. It has a feeling of stasis, rather than something we are transitioning through. It would be easy—if dangerous—to stay hunkered down. But emerging into the world is going to be its own challenge.
This is where we need to embrace the fact that we are in a liminal place. The pandemic is a transition; a very long and protracted one, but a transition nonetheless. Many have felt their lives were put on hold. The question is what you want things to look like once your finger comes off the pause button. In workshops I’ve facilitated, an interesting insight has been the number of people who have avoided creating routines during this time. This unconscious recognition that this is a time of transition is useful.
What we need to give thought to, though, is considering and moving towards what comes next. We can’t go back to where we were. We optimally shouldn’t stay where we are. But I think it’s safe to say that for all that people want the pandemic to be over, there has been comparatively less thought about what comes after.
As individuals, we all have the capacity for reinvention. We have agency and the ability to act, provided we recognize that it is there. We have the power to design our futures, and to bring them to fruition. That requires courage, effort, risk and work, but it’s possible. The fact that we are still in a liminal place today is the trigger to recognize that we’re not done yet. There is still time, and there is still opportunity, to invent what comes next.
We get to choose what we would like our post-pandemic world to look like. More importantly, we get to choose how we show up in that world. There are still no guides. There is very little precedent. The transition into the pandemic was forced. Our transition out of it and into what comes beyond is our choice. What we choose to do with this possibility is up to us.
Michael Hilbert says
In some ways, I look back and think that we have wasted some of the time that we had in the past year. We could have learned a new skill, read a few more books, reviewed and enhanced our work processes. And many (including myself) have done this, however as I see things opening up and our work and TO DO LIST increasing, I think, “could we have done more”. Your thoughts direct me to the future, a future that has not been written, and is the only thing that we can change.
Thanks for the thoughts and a direction to go look towards.
Mark Mullaly says
I really appreciate the observation. It’s an interesting perspective, and a difficult one to confront. We could have done more, perhaps. For some, they were just keeping their heads above water. For others, they have been enjoying less travel and less demands of immediate responsiveness. Still others have had to step up their game in ways that no one saw coming.
For me, I can genuinely say that this has been a hard year on a number of levels. While there is more that I WISH I had done, there are many things that I have done that I am proud of, and many more things that required far greater effort than they should, for far less impact than I might of liked.
I’m trying to be kind to me, and trying not to judge others too harshly. Sometimes both of those things are hard, also.
As you note, though, the future is not yet written. That’s where we can decide what’s right for each of us. More on that this weekend!
Michael Hilbert says
Thanks for the response. I guess I am framing (or need to frame) my observations from my particular boat and people steering that boat. I know there have been positive things that have occurred with innovation and new ways of work. As you have said, it is what we do with these lessons observed moving forward that will make the difference.