Thursday, January 04, 2007

Betwixt and Between

I've talked a little here about the "Women and Literature" course I'll be teaching this spring, described in this post. I was working on the syllabus the other day and came across an excellent Wikipedia article on liminality, which will be the theme of the course. Very briefly, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, liminality is a state of transition, "characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation."

As the Wikipedia article explains, there are many forms and examples of liminality, which can take the physical form of a threshold -- a door, a window, a border -- or of a time of day (dawn, dusk). The term's very fashionable in all kinds of academic fields these days, from literary criticism to religious studies.

Reading the Wikipedia article reminded me how attracted I've always been to liminal states and places. One of the things that appeals to me most about the diaconate is how deacons live in liminal space, moving back and forth between the church and the world, standing on the borders between the two; and, of course, my on hold status is a liminal state in itself. At the moment, I'm neither withdrawn from ordination nor moving towards it: I'm living in a grey area. It's ironic that a Myer-Briggs J would be so drawn to the liminal, but maybe the two are connected: maybe liminal states serve as an antidote to my J-ness, or something. In any case, there's great power and possibility in liminal states. I've always found them magical, and a lot of fantasy deals with liminality very directly.

That's all old news. The new thing I realized the other day is that I love the ER because it, too, is liminal space. The Wikipedia article outlines the three stages of liminality, as defined in the work of anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner:
With examples from a college graduation ceremony.

First or preliminary stage
This change is accomplished by separating the participants from their usual social setting. The students are first separated from the rest of their community, both by gathering together and by wearing distinctive clothing.

The liminal stage
A period during which one is "betwixt and between", "neither here nor there". When the ceremony is in progress, the participants are no longer students but neither are they yet graduates. This is the distinctive character of liminality.

The final or postliminal stage
A period during which one's new social status is confirmed, and reincorporation. Upon receiving his or her diploma, the student officially becomes a college graduate. The dean and professors shake the student's hand in congratulation, giving public recognition to the student's new status as a person with a college degree.
It's pretty easy to see how these stages apply to the ER. Patients are in a distinct, separate space, usually wearing hospital gowns rather than street clothing. While they're in the ER, most of them are very much in liminal space: the gray area between sickness and health, between life and death, between being discharged (and resuming civilian status) and being admitted (and assuming full patient status). In this sense, the ER is a psychological no-man's-land, and one of the jobs of the staff -- and certainly one of the primary roles of chaplains -- is to help patients navigate that territory, to serve as guides and companions.

The liminal nature of the ER may also be why it's always felt so holy to me. Like other liminal places, it's "thin space," where the barrier between the human and the divine is most permeable. People who haven't spent a lot of time in ERs may find it very strange to think of them as spiritual places. Emergency departments are bustling, chaotic, and noisy, and the patients there are often in pain and usually unhappy. But I suspect that at least some people who do spend a lot of time in ERs will understand what I mean. In the middle of the whirlwind, after all, is where we often hear the still small voice.


  1. Anonymous9:58 AM

    Hi Susan,
    I appreciate how the Myers-Briggs can lend insight into aspects of personality. One thing I find interesting about the J/P scale is that it is linked with the E/I scale. Namely, and extravert will manifest their "J-ness" or "P-ness" in the outer world, and the inner world will manifest the opposite. Intraverts, on the other hand, manifest their "J-ness" or "P-ness" in their inner world, with the opposite and weaker preference shown to the outer world.
    When you talk about the irony of a Myers-Briggs J being drawn to the liminal, my first thought is wondering if you are also a Myers-Briggs I. In other words, your favorite "inner" world is actually P, which would be more down toward liminal states.

  2. What a really interesting post -I will have to think on this some more!

  3. Bingo, Kristen! I'm an INFJ. Thanks for the explanation!

  4. Anonymous12:31 PM

    I, also, score as an INFJ!

  5. Very interesting discussion, although one from which I feel divorced, probably because life seems to me to be a constant series of transitions - whether it is from one unique, unrepeatable instant to the next, or the inexorable change of everything towards lead. Everything is in a constant state of change, of flux, of evolution. What is 'permanent' one moment is swept away the next and replaced by another 'certainty'.

    Breathtaking fun, isn't it.

  6. Hi, Martyn! Yes, that's true: but even if the illusion of permanence is an illusion, it feels real to those of us experiencing it. There are certain times in our lives when we're much more acutely aware of being in transition or flux than in others, and so I think the idea of liminality is still important.

  7. Have you read "Child of a Rainless Year" by Jane Lindskold? It's one of her best, IMO. Much there about liminality.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.