There’s an article on this website where I talk about the deep survival crisis the protagonist of Cast Away is plunged into when he is stranded on an uninhabited island. After four years of persevering and adapting to a harsh environment, he is able to free himself from the extreme confines of an isolated, ascetic life. In this article I explore the primitive and intimate process of being inside the reality of moving through severe challenges. ~ Gloria
In the Liminal Zone, we are eyeless, voiceless, and without skin to cover our bones.
We are wanderers in the land of the dead, a stark desert buffeted by howling winds. If you listen closely, you can hear the shrill whispers of its discarnate inhabitants – those unwilling to move on, unwilling to let go of their grief, and those who will not leave until they understand, from their most profound depths, WHY.
When you’ve lost your job, your spouse, your child, your beloved pet, when you’ve been forcibly and permanently separated from who you loved and what you need to live, the grief and shock are overwhelming. You’re not having a debate with despair, loneliness, or terror – you are those things; they live inside each cell of your being, roiling through your guts in an endless loop of horror. You are now inside the cruel universe. This is about your absolute powerlessness to do anything about being swept away, tugged under violent waters, and thrown against sharp rocks and jagged reefs. And it all happens without your consent while you choke, unable to scream or protest.
And then – miraculously – you are flung to the surface and you gasp madly for air.
Unknown depths stretch endlessly before you. If you want to live, you must now tread through them. You have entered the Liminal Zone, the bridgeless chasm between the life you had and the one that does not yet exist. You are in the space between the stories of your life. When we’re in that space, we don’t know if we will get back to our former life, to our worn but comfortable story, or if we will find ourselves on a different track in a new story, or if will get back at all. And therein lays the unassailable terror and invitation of the Liminal Zone. It is here, at the threshold of scathing unknowability, that we have the opportunity to wrestle personal limitations made even more potent by the inscrutable environment we find ourselves in. The story of your life as you knew it is in its death throes.
In this space of complete vulnerability, we don’t know if we will live or die.
Death is the end of the current story. Resurrection of what was is not a likely option, so what will the new story be? We don’t know. We can’t know. We can only guess at what’s possible. We can try to calculate the odds, taking into account the external resources available and the capacity of our ingenuity, including the state of our mental and physical health. It’s possible, too, that although the apparent horizon holds no promise for it, life could change for the better. Some unplanned-for event or resource could unexpectedly appear. But if we want to live one thing is certain – we have to stay focused. We do not have the luxury of displacing this primary focus with endless philosophical queries and metaphysical excursions into WHY. We must make our peace with what is and proceed. If we want to be able to write ourselves into the future, we have to be the authors of our lives in thought, word, and deed. But to get to the future we will have to go through the Liminal Zone.
Once inside the Zone, your former identity is unceremoniously shed.
The attachment to your accomplishments – to the “Great Work” you put out in the world – becomes irrelevant and dissolves into a lack of meaning. After all, it cannot sustain you here. The identity you established in your former life is violently hacked right off your bones. Your persona is altered beyond recognition. It is here, in the Zone, that you are dismembered. You have become Liminal.
Now you must put yourself back together, and acquire a new body, a new identity, and a new story.
In 2013 I wrote When You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going where I talked about the deep survival crisis the protagonist of Cast Away is plunged into when he is stranded on an uninhabited island. After four years of persevering and adapting to a harsh environment, Chuck Noland is able to free himself from the extreme confines of an isolated, ascetic life.
Navigating the Liminal Zone
When Chuck’s plane went down into the South Pacific he was thrust into the Liminal Zone. What did he reflect on during those long lonely days and nights, especially when he knew that he might never see his family or friends again? He knew he could die of illness, starvation, and exposure. What kept him going, despite the loneliness and the acute unknowability of his future? Although he made several attempts to end his life, he continued to push forward into and through the Liminal Zone, eventually making his way out.
But how did he do that? How did he make his way to the other side? To begin: he was still in his body, in one piece. There were no immediate ways available to end his life other than returning to the ocean and intentionally drowning. But such an act is counter to the body’s instinct to survive. The innate tendency is to preserve one’s life for as long as one can. And that is how Chuck moved forward; he looked for ways to preserve his life. Although there was a huge learning curve in understanding his new environment and learning to master it sufficiently to stay alive, his perseverance, combined with enough success, encouraged him to continue to make the effort to live. That is not to say that he did not have frequent nightmares that this was how life would be for the duration or that he completely ceased to entertain taking his own life. I believe he walked between the chafingly disparate worlds of wanting to live and needing to die, and sometimes his need to die created pressure so abrasive that it was only his greater need to quell his hunger that saved him. His continuous dialogues with despair and hope were companions as inescapable as his breath and as inevitable as the blood that ran in his veins. Nevertheless, he pushed forward – driven by hunger, hope, and despair – and in doing so, stretched his capacity to wait, to be patient, and to be resilient inside the unknown.
When you are in the Liminal Zone, time is experienced differently.
In a sense, there is no time. No schedule dictates how long it will take to break the trails that will lead you to your new story. It can take weeks, months, or years. Your body and your will are the gifts and tools that will keep you going. The Liminal Zone gives no quarter; therefore, as long as there is an option to comfortably exit, the likelihood is great that many will take that exit. But for some, the choice is really between these two things: taking on the terrors of the unknown or giving up despite knowing that you might live. This is the gift of the Liminal Zone – comfort may be hard to come by while you’re in it, but you are nevertheless offered the possibility of a new life.
Copyright © 2014 – Current| Gloria Constantin | All Rights Reserved |
The Thing Is by Ellen Bass
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
The Thing Is by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love.
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