It’s that time of year again: graduation. But let’s look at what happens after graduation: summer!—that precious and perilous time before an enormous life change. Precious, yes—but perilous?
Summer after graduation is a liminal time—betwixt and between—leaving behind an unforgettable, important time in life and moving toward something new. But what exactly? We can’t know precisely because we are not there yet. So there can be a sense of unease, a sort of psychic itchiness around the collar.
But liminality is not limited to graduation. Many times we feel that we are on the threshold of something that we can’t name. We feel this when we are between jobs, waiting for a birth, a diagnosis or an answer to some kind of life-changing question.
The other only thing that is certain is that we are going somewhere, but it is entirely unpredictable what will happen when we get there. This uncertainty and ambiguity can be disturbing, depressing, uncomfortable—and it’s great because this is where the transformation happens!
When I was a chaplain I ran into this kind of uncertainty all the time. One man said to me, “I wasn’t raised in a church but just figured there was a God and if I was good then I would have a good life. I believed that preparation is the key to success and happiness. I was thoughtful about where I trained and worked. Everything was going just as a planned. Of course I knew that s**t happens. I just didn’t think it would happen to me. I questioned everything I ever believed about my life, my self and my death.”
It is precisely this surrender that precedes a breakthrough to a new kind of thinking. Being in a liminal space requires a different kind of thinking where we’re willing to explore new ideas even though they may seem ridiculous, crazy or just plain wrong.
Life is not a nice, neat mathematical equation where everything adds up every time. We say we know this and yet we are shocked and furious when life does not present the way we expected it to. Being in a liminal place is like free falling through outer space: there is nothing to hang on to, not even a horizon we can use to orient ourselves. What a great time to question everything we’ve ever believed about life and death and ourselves.
It’s easy to dread this time. But if we replace dread with curiosity, the experience becomes interesting and not frightening. When we move forward with the questions, “I wonder what this will be like? Who shall I become? Who will I meet?” it is no longer a frustrating wait, but an existential expedition
This is where Both/And thinking comes in. If we think that being betwixt-and-between holds nothing of value, then we will find nothing. But if we can hold a creative tension between Both/And and say, “Yes, this is hard and there is something in this for me,” we will find a rare gem. This is deep spiritual work.
There is something for us here, but what? We want to know. And we want to know now. But there is no rushing transformation. It’s like demanding Christmas when it’s only July.
This is what Rilke was talking about in his Letters To A Young Poet:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
His words have even greater impact now, a hundred years later, where to be uncertain is unthinkable; where in social gatherings, “Google it!” is said more often than, “Please,” or “Thank you.” We want to know. And we want to know now—and often we can.
Our discomfort with uncertainty isn’t a personal failing; we are hard-wired to avoid it. It’s a survival tool. We have to be certain we can kill that animal, eat that plant, drink that water. We have to be certain our cave is safe.
Spiritual uncertainty is rarely appreciated. Most people don’t realize that it is a pregnancy of the spirit. Something transcendent is growing inside us that we can’t yet name, we can’t yet appreciate. We want to rush to certainty but this could be the death of that which is developing within us. Like many pregnancies it is uncomfortable. We have to allow uncertainty to gestate until we birth something sacred and amazing within ourselves.
I don’t know exactly what happened when Jesus was in the tomb. It was a graduation of sorts—he could never go back to being a teacher with his merry band of disciples. He went on to something much greater—a constant Presence in our lives.