It has now been a little more than two years since the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of Covid-19 to be a pandemic. We have all endured making sense of uncertainty, changing expectations, shifting guidance and evaluation of risk. We all came into this pandemic together. Our experience of the pandemic was not uniform, however. As I made note in an earlier post, we may all be in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat.
The experience has not been a good one for most. It has arguably been a period of collective trauma. Frustration, anxiety and anger are emotions that have been amplified, and whose triggers have become hyper-sensitized. People have lost jobs, friends, family members and ways of life. There has been tension for those stuck at home at home working, there has been tragedy for those stuck at home not working, and there has been trauma for those for whom staying at home was never an option. Regardless of where you landed during the pandemic, it was not a fun ride.
While we came into the pandemic together (and with very little choice in the matter) we are not all leaving it together (and there was far more choice to be had here than has been fully realized). Some have been eager to put the entire experience in their rearview mirror. Many are cautiously making a transition to what’s next, as workplaces re-open and restrictions reduce. Others are not sure they quite want to be transitioning just yet, societal shifts and community expectations notwithstanding. For a significant subset, there is the feeling of being stuck and left behind by personal circumstance and underlying health conditions. Worse, the more that others choose to relax their own precautions, the more this fundamentally limits the options and choices of those who are immunocompromised.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I used liminality as a construct to explore what we were experiencing. While we might have all started with the same liminal experience (and it arguably continued longer than anyone expected) we are not all leaving it together, and we are certainly not all transitioning in the same way. We are more than just experiencing cracks around the liminal edges. While liminality is still an incredibly useful way of thinking about the transition that we are making—and the experience we endure—our collective liminal space has shattered into myriad individual remnants.
Above all, liminality is a framework for transition. It is a description of how we cross the threshold of experience from one identity to the other. It is breathtakingly simple in its overall construction, although that simplicity hides a significant amount of detail and nuance.
Any transition moves between three stages: the pre-liminal, the liminal and the post-liminal. Our pre-liminal state represents the us we used to be and the identity that we used to hold in the time before. With recognition of transition comes a letting go of our former self. It is then that we enter the liminal stage, treading through a sea of uncertainty as we figure out who we are in the process of becoming (a process that is often longer, more circuitous and more challenging than anyone anticipates at the outset). The post-liminal stage is defined by a forging of our new identity and creating a coherent view of our new purpose and focus.
As a model for change, it is remarkable useful (and served as the inspiration for Lewin’s model of organizational change). What is particularly useful is applying it as a lens to our collective and individual experiences. Doing so points to some important insights on how people have and have not attempted a process of transition as a result of the pandemic.
The entire essence of moving from pre-liminal to liminal is a letting go of who you have been, in order to work through the transition of what is coming next. We have any number of rituals (baptisms, graduations, marriages, funerals) explicitly designed to guide the liminal journey. They deliberately involve a preparation and readiness to let go, provide structure for moving through, and involve ceremony and acceptance on the other side of the new reality that is taking hold.
In the context of the pandemic, we had none of that. We became liminal overnight: no transition, precious little warning, and very little guidance on what to do from there. It was very much sink or swim, and the only saving grace was that we were all pretty much doing that together.
Where we find ourselves now, however, is with people at very different stages of the liminal journey. In particular, there are those clinging to the shore of where we have been, hanging on to a theoretical normal that no longer tangibly exists. These are the ones who are in denial about the virus and its impacts: that it wasn’t serious, that it didn’t exist and was a hoax. There are also those who must impose this view of the world on others: that those who are cautious are “sheeple“ and hypochondriacs who don’t want the pandemic to end. They engage in threats in response to attempts to manage the disease, and view interventions as an unnecessary incursion on their freedoms. There is no liminal transition here; there is denial that there is even cause for change.
For others their perception of the pandemic is that they are still adrift. They are struggling to process what it has meant for them, and to contemplate a way out. While they cannot connect with their previous identify, they are also decidedly unclear about how to proceed from here. Some—a massively significant number, as it turns out—are bereaving the very real loss of family, friends and loved ones. Others are simply trying to process what happened, to figure out the narrative of the pandemic and their place in it. While there is an acknowledgement of letting go, at the same time there is an incredible struggle to envision a coherent and meaningful future that doesn’t involve living through uncertainty and risk.
There is a different layering of this problem revealed by liminality that is especially challenging, however. For some, there is a risk that what was supposed to be transitory—our navigating through the pandemic and out the other side—has become their reality and identity. What was supposed to be transitional has become permanent. In this context, the risk is that they have coalesced their identify around living in a world of Covid, and don’t see any way forward or beyond whatsoever. This is not an easy place to be. We are collectively dealing with unparalleled levels of chronic stress, reported cases of depression have nearly doubled and a sizeable percentage of the population is experiencing trauma, anxiety and significant mental health challenges as a consequence. For these people, it is like going through the looking glass twice; first they found their way into the pandemic; now they need to find their way back out again.
For those who do not want to make the liminal journey, there is not a lot that can be done. To experience transition, you first have to let go of where you are. There is an astonishing number of people who simply refuse to do that, unfortunately reinforced by those that would see some political advantage in doing so. While better information presented well may help sway some, those who stubbornly refuse to even acknowledge the pandemic exists are unlikely to change.
For those that do want to get to the other side, the challenge is figuring out how that works, what it looks like and how you actually get there. There are layers of difficulty to work through here. In most liminal experiences, there is guidance, structure and support. There is still precious little of that here. Forging a post-liminal identify means being clear about what you want for yourself: your roles, your work, your interactions and your sense of purpose. It is difficult to come to terms with these questions when—despite trying to move forward—you are responding to shifting expectations and the overall fatigue of navigating a disease that can seem never-ending.
Focusing on specific aspects of the challenge can be helpful. Take personal interactions, as an example. When is it safe—and when do we feel comfortable—interacting with others, after two years of distance and caution? Not just vaccines but also a drug that can inhibit covid are now available; a remarkable accomplishment of science in a very short space of time. While that should be wondrous news, it comes with qualifiers; vaccination rates remain low, and the drug needs to be administered within five days of infection to be of any help.
That means that we are needing to make fundamental choices about our personal health, and the risks we consider acceptable taking. It means confronting not only the risk of infection, but the possibility of sustaining long-Covid, a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that affects as many as 10-30% of those contracting Covid. We are a long way from understanding not just consequences and treatment approaches, but also its long-term impacts.
Many of us have gotten used to mediating many aspects of our lives online, from shopping to zoom cocktail hours. How we re-enter the world and start socializing again depends on our taking educated risks in a world where there are still significant unknowns; we are balancing acceptance of the risks with the consequences of losing out on experiences if we choose not to engage in them.
It also means balancing those choices with the impacts on others, and figuring out what actions are safe for everyone. Current prevention guidelines articulate a duality of goals: managing impacts on the health system, and protecting the most vulnerable among us. Actually delivering on these goals suggests the reasonability of only dropping precautionary measures when case loads drop to 50 per 100,000 (the previous CDC threshold). We are a long way from that point, although we have been close before. Today, municipal mandates at twice that threshold are being challenged as unreasonable by higher-level orders of government.
How we approach re-entry to work is a different but related problem. As regions reduce prevention protocols, more and more people are being encouraged—or outright forced—to return to the office. That is resulting in a significant amount of resistance on many fronts; there is a fundamental disconnect between leadership expectations and those of employees, with surveys indicating that upwards of 73% of employees have a desire for continued flexible work options. Negotiating that stance on an individual basis can be challenging, but not impossible, and is an option to explore in considering desired future outcomes.
Ultimately, success is going to require a broader re-setting of expectations, encompassing not only the design of offices but how people are made to feel comfortable within them. Organizations need to rethink how they think about work, the tools that are used and the roadmap for using those tools. Leaders need to learn to listen and genuinely connect with their staff, something that has been hard to do and perhaps doesn’t come easily to many in the role. Ultimately, each of us need to think about what work means for us, how we want to show up and the career that we desire going forward.
Perhaps the biggest issue in how we each emerge personally is how we figure out what emergence looks like as a society. It is hard to find psychological safety, when we don’t know that we will be okay together. We are broken, not just in how we support each other as individuals but how we collaborate collectively. In the meantime, public health guidelines are shifting significantly, redefining what is acceptable. Many jurisdictional changes are driven by politics and weariness, not actual data and clear delineation of what constitutes an emergency.
Where we are struggling for answers societally, it can feel difficult to be making choices personally. Yet we do have choices to make, and the agency and opportunity to make them. In particular, there is a need to find balance between what is appropriate as individual action and how we do function collectively in society. This risk of making choices solely based on individual wants is that you address the consequences for your particular situation, without consideration of the broader societal impacts.
Managing those broader impacts means considering the influence of changes that we make on more affected members of society, and being prepared to accommodate them. That means respecting that some need to be more risk tolerant, continuing to be flexible in work and social arrangements, and being open to appropriate precautions and accommodations where required. It also means preparedness for what comes next. There is an open question as to whether we are yet at a point of transition, and when the next outbreak will occur. As the virus continues to evolve, there is also uncertainty about what can happen next; Omicron was more virulent but fortunately with comparatively less impact. There is no guarantee future variants will be as “kind.” Finally, we also need to think about the next pandemic on the horizon; as horrific as Covid has been, it won’t be our last pandemic, and our track record in preparedness to date has not been positive.
Our collective liminal transition has become fractured and fragmented. That said, the construct of liminality remains a useful one to think about your personal transition, the challenges facing those around you and how you support your broader networks and communities.
Different aspects of our lives are at different stages of readiness to move on. We don’t move through the liminal model linearly. It is not an even, progressive transition. Not all of our aspects are going to be ready to navigate through it at the same time. The confidence we feel one day isn’t necessarily going to be something we retain the next; this is its own reality, and something that we need to allow for and accommodate.
Each of us has the opportunity to define our way forward. Each of us has the potential to reinvent ourselves as we emerge from our pandemic now and move towards our subsequent future. What is important to keep in mind is that this transition is its own work. Letting go of who you were is hard. Managing transition is harder. Staying within the uncertainty of that transition while you figure out what comes next is perhaps the most difficult thing of all. It can be tempting when in turmoil to go with the first option that feels easy or safe. Staying out in the zone of discomfort is all part of the larger liminal journey, as difficult as that is. In time, it will pay off. In the meantime, allow for the cracks at the edges of reality, know there is a way through, and stay committed to finding your personal path.