No, this is not a review of the Dave Matthews Band song. This is about a different kind of space between; one that many of us misunderstand and tend to avoid. The term for this not-knowing “space between” is liminal space, which literally means “threshold.”
Some have described it metaphorically as standing in the threshold between two rooms; you are not technically in either room. You haven’t quite left one or entered the other. It is altered space, twilight, neither fully awake nor fully asleep space. It is often characterized by uncertainty and—for some of us more than others—the “not knowing” is almost intolerable.
About ten years ago my wife Jacki, our daughter Joelle, and I—all lifelong Midwesterners—transplanted to California from Minnesota (you bet) so that I could attend grad school. It was a big move. We sold our home, closed a business, and stuffed what belongings we hadn’t sold at our monster garage sale into a 24 foot U-Haul truck, and headed for the LA Basin—without jobs—to begin a new chapter (more like a new book) in our lives. Somewhere bouncing along in Nebraska in the middle of the night, Jacki and I were struck with the magnitude of what we were doing. This was liminal space; not planted where we came from, not planted where we were going, just in Nebraska, jostling down the interstate in a noisy truck. We cried. We prayed. We kept driving.
Liminal space is not necessarily good nor bad, it is just what is. It can be useful, though, even life changing if it is accepted and embraced as opportunity. People often make important life decisions in liminal space such as being on vacation. On the more difficult end of the continuum, in the painful spaces of disillusionment, suffering, and transition, people sometimes discover their life-callings and give birth to unexpected dreams. Things are planted and take root here where the hard-packed dirt of safety and complacency is broken up by the painful harrow of unbidden change. We would never sign up for these experiences but they change us deeply. We need to be changed.
Crisis and trauma can thrust us into very frightening liminal space. It may be that a marriage, a job, or life’s dream is crumbling, forcing us to move to a “new” and unfamiliar space. Stunned, disoriented, in pain, we are propelled into a journey from the familiar to we-know-not-what. Even when the familiar was miserable, it was at least familiar. Like refugees forced from our homes by disaster or despot; fleeing, clutching only what could be hurriedly stuffed into a suitcase we set out in search of some kind of safe place to land, sometimes with children in tow.
We can also find ourselves in the space between due to a collapse of our familiar way of doing things as when a dysfunctional coping strategy or a cherished defense mechanism stops working for us—goodbye denial. Sometimes our whole belief system goes up for grabs.
Let me offer a couple of pointers for traversing the space between. First, in the middle of pain and suffering when we are hurled into transitional space, as unpleasant as it may be, it is extremely important that we allow ourselves to feel our feelings because these emotions are part of our grieving process, the process of letting go of what was. They are sources of important information we may have been missing. In fact, checking out, tuning out, and numbing out may be contributors to our plunge into crisis. Stop. Stay present. Feel.
Secondly, we are faced with a deep challenge to choose to make meaning of suffering or risk sinking into bitterness and despair. I am not talking about yanking ourselves up by the bootstraps or propping ourselves up with pithy little mottos—the stuff of church message boards. This will be a wrestling match.
An authority on suffering, Auschwitz Concentration Camp survivor Dr. Victor Frankl stresses that the critical factor in surviving such experiences with our humanity intact is the ability to struggle with finding, no, making meaning of our suffering. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl writes “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” And reflecting on his concentration camp experience he says “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” Good stuff.
Paradoxically, while the trip across the space between is usually a solo interior journey, we may find great comfort and strength in knowing we are not alone. We need the love and support of others to walk through pain that is uniquely our own. This is the mission of Wings Like Eagles; to let you know you are not alone. You are not alone.