Living the Liminal: Meaning, Stability, and Connection in Times of Change

I start my days in the garden right now. I like to hand water my plants – it means that I get a good sense of what’s going on with them from day to day. There’s a feeling in the air that I’ve come to associate with the change of seasons. It’s very subtle – temperatures are still summery here, especially later in the day. But early in the morning, there’s a coolness to the air and a quality to the light that tells me we’re shifting again. The spiral that carried us outward during the growing season is beginning to curl back inward again.

Here in the mid-Atlantic, full autumn doesn’t really hit til October these days. We’re still a couple months away from anything that truly feels like fall. But the shifting, the liminality of the turn towards darkness, is present. We stand with one foot in summer and one….well, one on unsteady ground. Not yet in the next season, but also not quite standing in this one.

That pattern in the natural world can be seen in the world of human civilization as well. We are not having a presidential election this November, but we know one is coming next year, and the jockeying for position is well underway. As always within this pattern, there’s a sense of the waning of the current presidency as the path ahead becomes murky with various possibilities.

In many places, laws and policies that violate the sovereignty and personhood of women and queer people have been passed. Those laws and policies have, rightfully, been challenged, but many of those court cases have not reached their conclusion yet. Laws are on the books but paused, and we do not know whether they will ultimately come to take effect.

On a global scale, the effects of climate change are here. More extreme storms and temperature variations mean that much of how we normally manage living in our region is up in the air. We don’t know if our homes and infrastructure will be able to keep up. We don’t know for sure what the path ahead looks like.

I suspect that every era of human history included gray areas. Will the plague come here? Will the harvest be enough? Will the war spread? And yet, with so many unknowns on a local, global, and human scale, it also feels like we may be standing in a more liminal place than many of our ancestors did. We’re certainly aware of more than they were – the 24 hour news cycle alone ensures that we have access to information almost instantly.

The word liminal is defined as occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Standing in a doorway, neither completely inside a building nor out, is a good example of a liminal state. Liminal also sometimes relates to a transitional or beginning stage of a process. There are many voices pointing to the possibility that we are at the end of one age and the beginning of another.

Living with uncertainty is hard even when we’re talking about garden-variety uncertainty. People like to make plans: we have our three and five year financial plans, what we want to do when we retire, what we’ll do with that extra bedroom once the kid goes to college, what we’ll plant in the garden next year after losing a battle with squash vine borers this year (that latter part might just be me), and all of those plans hinge on knowing roughly what the terrain of the future will look like. The more uncertainty is present, the less we can plan for the future.

So how do we manage now? In a world where even something as simple as whether the structures we live in will survive the shifting in our climate, it is really tough to make plans. To develop a vision for the future. To have a reasonable idea of how everything will play out.

When I was 18, I joined the Marine Corps. I needed a big change and military service offered a fantastic opportunity on that front. I went to boot camp, then combat training, and then was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Being enlisted in the military is, by its nature, an unpredictable state. Most of us serve one year tours of duty before being moved. We do not often know where we are going until shortly before we leave. All the other servicemembers we meet are on a different pattern for those one year tours of duty based on when they enlisted, so social connections are constantly shifting. Despite that unstable footing, I discovered the friendships that formed were incredibly intense. It’s an interesting mark of how strong those connections were that most of us tracked each other down once social media became part of our world. Twenty years later, I’m still close friends with people I was close friends with while stationed abroad.

I realized, looking back on my own life so far, that relationships are a rare consistent thread. Careers change, we pick up and move, we experience divorce or deep grief that changes a lot about how we live. And yet, if we’re lucky, many of the people in the picture remain.

We know from behavioral science that long term happiness and life satisfaction is linked to our connections. The more intimate social connections people have, the greater their overall reported level of life satisfaction. I think the tricky part is that first word in the idea, though: intimate. We’re not just talking about acquaintances and fair weather friends here. Joining an axe-throwing club isn’t enough. We have to actually choose to cultivate deeper friendships, which means opening up to vulnerability as well as the potential for discomfort and awkwardness.

This idea is backed up by the stories we hear from death doulas, hospice workers, and others who care for people at the end of their lives. At the end of a life, no one wishes they’d gone to work more or made more money. Many people wish they’d dared to be their authentic selves, spent more time with friends and loved ones, and invested more time and energy in the causes they cared about.

Within the Pagan religious world, I am what is often described as a mystic or seer. I deliberately seek out transcendental experiences that occur outside the framework of consensus reality. This is achieved through trance state, meditation, journey work, and certain kinds of rituals. Not all Pagans are mystics, and not all mystics are Pagans, of course, but there are quite a few of us within the Pagan community. An interesting common thread that has emerged from the experiences of many different seers is a message about community. The spirits and ancestors we talk to are all telling us roughly the same thing: we need each other. We must begin to forge stronger communities. The tendency to devolve into squabbling over perceived minor slights and differences in practice must cease. The messages are consistent and coming from every direction. We need each other.

The minister of my home congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, has a great saying: If you feel like the world is just too much for one person to handle, stop being just one person. There’s very real science behind the advice. We know that when people join groups who are working to create change together, the anxiety that participants feel about their efforts is reduced. Simply by being part of the solution, by working together with others of like mind, we support a healthier relationship with the stress and unpredictability of our world.

I’d also like to share one of my favorite quotes with you before I begin pulling these different threads together. This quote comes from the book “A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century.” This text is required reading for those of us who go through the Unitarian Universalist Association East Region’s Commissioned Lay Ministry training program. It’s an excellent book, and a good read for any UU.

“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts – to bless, to protest, and to repair. Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when – even as shared aspiration – it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.'”

Before reading that book, I hadn’t given much consideration to the idea of hope. The text posits that hope is the most fragile out of the triad of faith, hope, and love. It is the most in need of support, both individual and community. Remember what hope truly is – it’s the burning coals that fire the engine of transformation. It’s the brazen blaze that inspires big dreams. Hope is audacious, the driving force behind social changes that seemed unthinkable once. And hope will deliver them again. Hope is what empowers us to CHANGE things. Believing that the path can be different, better, more just…this is an act of immense hope. And it is an act that has been performed again and again and again.

So what do we know?

We know that strong bonds between people do not necessarily require a long period of in-person contact. My best friend and I haven’t lived in the same place for over two decades, but we still speak several times a week. We can cultivate strong bonds without the guarantee that the person we’re befriending will still be physically present with us, especially now with myriad ways to stay in touch. As is the case with most things now, “there’s an app for that”. Our friendships can remain and grow stronger even if we’re geographically distant.

We know that behavioral science links strong interpersonal bonds to happiness, longevity, and good health over the long haul. We also know that working together in groups on issues that matter to us reduces stress and anxiety, and has the added benefit of creating positive change in the world.

We know that none of us are getting out of here alive, and those who take the hero’s road before us have wisdom to share: they wish they’d invested in their relationships, true selves, and dreams, not in their paycheck.

We know that there’s a message rising from this liminal time: we need each other. Communities must grow strong again. The myth of fierce independence is based on a capitalist lie, and one that keeps us separated from each other. Humans have always been a community species, and remain so now. We are at our best when we are sharing: resources, time, love, laughter, music, art, and effort. We are not so different from the other primates on this planet.

We know that we must carry grief in one hand, but somehow carry hope in the other. And hope requires conscious cultivation, experiences, and communities that support it. Hope is a practice, an action, and a feeling all at once.

So, how do we face liminal times? By creating meaning rather than plans. It’s okay to still dream of the future, to think about next year’s garden or the trip you want to take once there’s enough money in the savings account. Dreams are good, and sometimes plans do work out. But to live well despite the uncertainty, we must invest just as much time and energy into our relationships. There’s an opportunity to connect on a deep level before us. The liminality we all wrestle with is a shared experience. We can talk about it and open up to others. We can find other people who want to shape the future in the way we do, and work with them. We can remember that we’re members of the great ape family, and nothing is quite as lovely as sitting and breaking bread together. Sharing resources with those we love is embedded deep in our DNA as a nurturing, healing experience.

And at the end, even if the original plan didn’t work out, we’ll have the love and connection of a life well lived to carry us into our next great adventure. How do we face liminality? With meaning. We find our stable footing in uncertain times through connection. And we step forward into the future together.

*This blog was offered as a sermon on Sunday, August 13th, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown








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