A new word crept into the language while I wasn’t watching – “liminal”. None of my dictionaries include it. And they were only published 20 years ago.
Not “limn,” which means to paint or portray.
“Liminal” derives from Latin “limen” meaning the threshold of a doorway. It marks the division between inside and outside, between warm and cold, between calm and stormy.
It is the moment of transition, when one state of being transforms into another.
A liminal moment is easy to identify if it’s a doorway. It’s more difficult with geography, for example. Exactly where would you say the mountains end and the prairie begins? Which do the foothills belong to?
Or with light. At what point, as light fades, does day become night?
Indeed, it may not be possible to define transition points precisely. Is this shirt dry, or still damp? Is a spring day warm, compared to winter? Or chilly, compared to summer?
And if you think that’s hard, try applying liminology to social customs. When did tattoos go mainstream? When did certain four-letter words become acceptable in common discourse?
In such matters, you often only know that you’ve gone too far, when you’ve gone too far.
At one time, I worked with a British cartoonist. Talented artist. Puckish sense of humour. But he tended to stand about six inches too close to me. It felt as though he was intruding into my personal space. That was, apparently, the way people talked to each other in London.
Today, Covid-19 fears have changed the rules. We’re supposed to stay two metres apart. If I thoughtlessly move any closer than that, the person I’m talking with tends to back away.
I wonder how much of our social distancing will become habitual, if and when the rules are relaxed? (It really is “social” distancing, despite euphemisms about “physical” distancing. We have no trouble keeping physical distances between ourselves and snarling dogs, hurtling freight trains, and stinky street people. It’s only when we seek social relationships that distancing becomes difficult.)
This is not the first time we have had mass changes in social behaviour. Some stick; some don’t. Blackouts in Britain during the Blitz were even more rigorously obeyed than “Stay Home” injunctions today. But blackouts didn’t last. Today, many office buildings stay lit all night.
Conversely, the U.S. funded its war efforts massively during WWII. That hasn’t abated at all, even though America is not officially at war with anyone right now.
Forced to change
Franciscan priest and spirituality guru Richard Rohr contends that we currently live in a liminal time, a time of transition. Covid-19 has led us to reduce travel, reduce use of fossil fuels, grow more of our own food, and bake our own bread.
When we find ourselves in liminal space,” Rohr writes, “does it matter whether we are pushed or whether we jump? Either way, we are not where or what we were before, nor do we know how or where we will land in our new reality.”
Commonly, Rohn continues, “We wish such a time to be over. But what if we can choose to experience this liminal space and time, this uncomfortable now, …as a place and state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation?”
There have been such times in the past. The most far-reaching might be the abolition of slavery – in Canada, in 1819; in Britain, 1834; the U.S., 1863. Tides turned against a practice accepted without question since before history began being recorded.
Other instances might be the discovery of vaccines. The movement towards women’s equality. Henry Ford’s car for the masses, the Model T.
Those were all liminal times, transitions from one generally accepted paradigm towards another. Not everyone welcomed the new status. Some fought it, tooth and coffin nail. Few foresaw the changes that the new paradigm would lead to – for good or ill.
Seismologists speak of fault zones, fracture zones, deep underground. For decades, centuries, vast blocks of the earth’s crust remain locked together. And then, one day, something slips. The blocks re-align as an earthquake.
There’s an earthquake going on right now. Never before have nations all around the world acted in solidarity as they have to contain the Covid-19 virus. No one knows yet how the fault zones of culture and belief will re-align themselves.
Liminal times may feel like chaos and anarchy, inexplicable blips on a graph. In reality, they’re the labour pains of something new being born.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column produced only three letters.
A local reader took offence: “Why would you purposely insult the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Albertans living in B.C. We all know where you stand on energy issues as soon as you refer to the Oilsands as SLUDGE SANDS. Pathetic!”
Of course, the “oil sands” were known for decades as the “tar sands” until Alberta tried to change their image by changing their name. I asked the writer if he had actually held the stuff in his hands.
He replied, “I’ve held it, smelled it and have been to the extraction site numerous times! Sludge is a by-product of burning ANY oil. ‘Bituminous resource’ is the scientific name for what you refer to as sludge. It has employed hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of B.C. workers. We won’t even get into the amount of tax dollars added to our national wealth.
“Back to my main point. Your blathering words tell us all we need to know about your stand on Canada’s resources.”
Frank Martens commented on the plunging economy: “A close relative of ours is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the present economic situation. Our whole family is banding together to see if we can help him by remortgaging our properties and buying his property to protect him from losing both business and building. We contacted our banks and the best they could do for us was offer a mortgage at 3.9%, despite the Central Bank’s lending rate at near zero percent. It looks as if the big banks are still looking for blood. I haven’t heard of any of the CEO’s of these banks willing to reduce their incomes at this time of ‘love thy neighbour’.”
Tom Watson: “Your comments about oil being totally worthless in a stalled economy are true. In Guelph, I can currently buy gasoline for 74 cents a gallon, some 63 cents lower than what it was two years ago. But it doesn't help much when I can't go anywhere. I'd gladly pay at least $1.00 if I could go someplace. And I, like you, am skeptical that turning off the oil tap will benefit the environment all that much. Transportation is still needed, so what will fuel its engines? Electric power? For one thing, we're nowhere near having the generation capacity to make anything other than a very gradual transition. In the meantime...what?”
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.
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