by Rev. Vicki Joy McClure, MAPM, BCC
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets 4: Little Gidding)
You would think that since we go through so much change in this life, that we’d be used to it. Even when we’re born—which is marked as a beginning—we are ending something else: the time in the womb.
As kids, we become familiar with and are shaped by the expectations of our stage of being. Kindergarten means you might need to learn to sit still for longer periods of time. Fourth grade means that boys or girls suddenly have cooties. Eighth grade means the cooties are gone and attraction is there. High school means more independence and mobility.
When we move on to the work world, our sense of self changes again and again according to the job we hold. We move in and out of various stages of dependence, independence, interdependence and back again. Our very cells are constantly in a state of transformation.
Yet, although change is so inextricably part of life, our typical way of thinking is in neat boxes, roles, goals, and contexts. We act from a deeply-rooted expectation that life is inherently stable and steady. Identity to a large extent becomes attached to, and finds stability in, each role and goal and context.
Each time a role or context morphs, it takes time to figure out what is different, what has shifted, or even to notice that something has changed. One must determine how to fit in a new situation and relate to the others in it. Such thresholds can bring on a sense of loss, ambiguity, and disorientation. The degree of crisis that we experience depends on how attached our identity is to the aspect of life that has changed.
A liminal place is a place in-between—a threshold and transition between the usual way of understanding the self and a new way. Sickness, a new diagnosis or even a new job; the death of a loved one, or a shift in a relationship can bring on this sense of insecurity, instability, and not-knowing.
Typically, in liminal times our identity fogs over and we regress to “less mature” ways of behavior. It’s a normal human experience to whine and complain and rebel over this sense of instability. Depression, sometimes even clinical depression, can set in. Like the transition between an airport moving sidewalk and the stationary floor, things can get a little jerky.
Liminal places, by definition, strip us of the roles, goals, and contexts we depend upon as being “us” (1). Change, especially unexpected change, necessitates the rediscovery of the Self. Yet often we are caught off guard by change and have become so dependent on known ways of being and doing, we aren’t even able to identify the origin of our distress. We just feel it.
A chaplain offers guidance through liminalities. Like a translator of a foreign language, a chaplain can learn “the language” of the one in transition and interpret the IS-ness of the event into that language; witnessing it, naming it, and helping to make meaning of the transition. When a person gets bogged down “under the circumstances,” a chaplain—like an experienced airport traveler—takes the hand of the one who is disoriented, watches the terrain, and reminds that the landscape of this life is one that is perpetually changing. She/he helps to fit the present terrain into the person’s larger, less changeable contexts and ways of being.
Are you feeling jerked around, disoriented, and finding yourself whining more than usual? Has your role changed recently? Or perhaps your goals or relationships to others? Or maybe you have received a worrisome medical diagnosis? Yes? Well, it makes sense you’re feeling sad and lost!
What natural talents and abilities see you through? Where are your sources of sustenance? What do you love and what gives you hope? For many, religion, art, music, dreams, movement, and literature are all expressions of Spirit and the self which include, also can help extend the focus beyond, one’s present circumstances.
Hang on to those sustaining things like a rail, and walk carefully. Take my hand and let’s talk. We’re on a moving sidewalk, and sometimes things get a little jerky…
1. For more information about the influence of roles, goals, and contexts, see www.systemscentered.com.