I love stories. They don’t have to be mine or even true. In fact, I often like to create stories in my imagination about the man sitting across from me on the bus, and I’ve been known to weave entire narratives about people with only a few key pieces of information. I like to think my brain is fine-tuned to find the moral of life’s more downtrodden stories and seek out life lessons within my own stories. In a sense I think of myself as a professional storyteller, using your stories and my stories to better explain and understand the world and our health, happiness, and overall wellbeing. So imagine my surprise when asked the seemingly simple question, “What is your story?” I stumbled a bit, seeking clarity around the question, but within minutes, it was clear I was being asked about the story of my current reality—the story behind my career, my website, my life. This lack of clarity made me pause, and so I’ve spent the last few months assessing my story. My discovery has surprised me but also motivated me to reevaluate the balance I continually seek and ask you to seek as well.
Life itself is a collection of stories. You can think of these stories as being structured something like a 3-act screenplay. The first act introduces the characters, explains the background, and reveals a conflict or life crisis. The second act is the struggle to resolve the conflict. And finally, the third act brings the story to either a concrete conclusion (like in American movies) or an ambiguous conclusion (like in French movies). At times, we may get stuck in one part of the story for longer than anticipated, but ultimately we round out one adventure, which propels us forward into our next. But recently I realized that sometimes we get stuck between acts.
The space between acts—when we’re done with the first act but not quite in the second act or done with the second act but not in third—is often defined as liminal space. Theologian Richard Rohr explained liminal space as a time in life “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.” Being in this liminal space can feel unsettling and, for me, quite uncomfortable. My Type A instinct is to strategize a way out—to actively seek ways to push into the “bigger world” or the next “act” as soon as possible. The truth is, that we can’t force our way into that next act. Yes, taking action to pave new pathways is important, but there is no guarantee that any one action will lead us in our desired direction or any closer to what we may think is the “right” direction.
So sometimes we have to be patient and get familiar with and comfortable in the unknown. We’re forced to live in the ambiguity. In this space, we’re pushed to explore to find a way past the liminal space. The good news is that whether we explore through action or through our thoughts and feelings, there is bound to be discovery.
Imagine walking into a home for the first time and being asked to find your way to the living room. Clearly, you don’t know your way to the living room because the space is unfamiliar. You can turn right or left or walk straight ahead. Any path could lead you to the living room, a dead end, or another room altogether. So you choose a path, look out for signals and cues, and ultimately find your way. Living in a liminal space is like walking into that unfamiliar home. Without touchstones of familiarity, you have to find a new way to navigate. And this new way is slower, with more care and attention needed, and it calls on you to rely more on your instincts. That’s the silver lining of the unknown. We have to stop listening to and looking for the familiar (because the familiar is either not there or not longer works) and instead listen to ourselves to discover new cues. Along the way we think, we learn, and we gain or renew our confidence—this experience can be richer than our “autopilot” mode amidst the familiar.
According to Buddhist philosophy, existing in this liminal space is, in fact, a type of gift. I like the idea that the most ambiguous moments in our lives are gifts. This week, identify the story you’re in right now, and take in what you are doing to address or move that story forward. Every once in a while, maybe once or twice a day, pause. Bring attention to what you are doing in the moment and take note, either mentally or in a journal. By bringing your full attention to your story, perhaps you’ll find new paths to your goal, or you’ll be able to congratulate yourself for making the right choices to move yourself in the best direction possible. For more guidance on trusting the flow of life, take a look at our challenge, “Life is a process; Trust the flow.”
Make A Change Today,