We are living in the in-between. The coronavirus pandemic is creating what’s known as a liminal phase in our lives — a time where we’re neither here nor there.
It’s like we’re stuck at an airport, but instead of traveling between Istanbul and New York, we’re in hanger between our pre-COVID-19 lives and whatever the new world will be.
It’s a dangerous place to be, but it’s one that also has the potential for great positive change.
Liminal stages in anthropology
To be in a liminal stage is to be in-between. Victor Turner describes it as “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1969). To get there, you usually need to be separated often, either ritually or symbolically, from the rest of the collective.
Human societies have often created periods of liminality because they can serve a great purpose.
Being in liminality prohibits you from following the plans you made in a time of normality. It is not a comfortable, controllable stage where all goes according to the established rules. It is a time when you must revise every practice, pattern, and assumption you used to have.
It has the power to challenge established norms. By its nature, liminality pushes the boundaries of self. It forces you to be creative. When removed from the restraints of culture and time, it can open up possibilities for change and improvement.
However, it can also engender insecurity, malleability, and vulnerability. It can even lead to death.
But…if you survive your liminal stage, you are stronger, more adaptable, and ultimately better suited to your environment and your society.
So what does our liminal stage look like?
We have to do all things at once. And it is tough. We parents are not all right.
For the first weeks of the coronavirus, there appeared many tips on how to keep kids busy by exploring virtual museum tours, visiting NASA online, and reading through virtual libraries. I wonder how many of us persistently managed to organize those activity lists and follow them religiously?
Many social media posts were even joyful in anticipation of the upcoming staycations! I guess we misread what was going to hit us.
Before the coronavirus started to spread, we juggled our many responsibilities by planning and compartmentalizing. It was hard but usually manageable.
Now, we work full-time at everything. We have taken on full-time parenting, full-time work, and full-time housekeeping. We are adapting to blurry online meetings, chaotic home offices, and endless suggestions on how to do it all. But we cannot do it all.
Nothing is definite in our lives. One day, a rumor circulates that the virus has aerosol capabilities so that we can breathe in. Another day, speculation spreads that the virus can last for weeks on surfaces.
Amid all these worries and continually changing information, we are simultaneously holding an online meeting with our team, calculating company financials, putting on the next movie for our kids, and fixing an extremely salty dinner.
In this challenging environment, nothing resembles the calm, Pinterest-worthy home office. We have
· pets jumping on our computer
· kids asking for homework help
· babies crying in the other room
· laundry and housework haunting every spare minute
· groceries to disinfect
· Zoom meetings to attend, and
· work to do — work that pays our bills today but may not tomorrow.
But we are enduring
While wrestling with our insecure present and unpredictable future, we keep working. We keep trying to adapt to our new normal with its many emotions, duties, and responsibilities.
This liminal phase of life puts us in an anti-structure, as Victor Turner would point out. Things aren’t moving in the structures that they used to. And yet, we are adapting. We are, in a way, starting to become fine with some of it.
Suddenly, many faulty behaviors that would have prompted the eye rolls of others have become just fine.
Many of the neat rules, regulations, and affections of a corporate office habitat have been replaced with unexpected intimacy, surprising collaboration, and heartfelt empathy. We can now enter into the private spheres of our clients and colleagues. We can see the hanging shirts and pretend not to look, but we do.
We talk, we look, we commiserate. And we seem to get closer to each other by loosening the rules of the pre-pandemic economy.
What will happen after this period of quarantine when we reintegrate into the old system?
Will we forget the changes of quarantine work and jump back easily into the corporate habitat? Will grocery stores keep their face shields and tape? Will we pay our employees the same?
Will we remember the hanging shirts and jumping pets on our computer with fondness or relief?
Will the new system redefine the rules yet again?
And we are letting go
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am not an astrologer. I am not a futurist. I am a cultural anthropologist who can only examine what is happening and try to make sense of it by comparing it to the constructs we know.
I know that we are at a threshold, in a literal and metaphoric sense, and that what we all need during this period of stress and change, is reassurance.
It is ok
- if you cannot fix a meal
- If your kids are not following their intense, randomly disconnecting online courses
- if you do not know the answers to your kids’ annoying questions
- if you cannot follow your yearly planner
- if you put on weight
- if you do not know what is going to happen next
- if you do not know what day it is and if every day is a Monday
- if you change, transform and start to look at the world from a completely different angle
Anthropologists love studying liminal periods because they are not just a change from the status quo; they are an inspiration. They are opportunities. They represent anti-structure.
You never know how you’re going to come out of a liminal period, but one thing is certain:
You don’t come out the same.