By Lisa Slayton, reprinted from City Gate.
This is the fourth in a series.
We can be made whole, we can become more and more of who God made us to be. And to do so, we must let go, release and embrace the uninvited embrace.
The Liminal Space
We talk often of letting go and releasing as part of transformation, but actually doing so is full of challenge.
An image to help visualize this is that of a trapeze artist. If you’ve ever watched one, you realize the person swinging on the trapeze is hanging onto the trapeze with both hands, and then they begin to either reach for another trapeze bar or for the hand of another person hanging from a trapeze bar. The thing that often is missed – it happens so fast you might not notice–is that in order to catch the other trapeze bar or the other person they’re reaching for, they have to completely let go and release the trapeze bar they’re holding onto. And so there is a moment, a second, two seconds, where they’re hanging suspended in mid-air, trusting another person or trapeze bar is going to reach them in time. We must release in order to receive.
This space in between is often called liminal space. Often described as a threshold between one state and another, liminality was first described by anthropologists in the study of cultures and human behavior. It is a place of ambiguity, of fluid boundaries. We find ourselves “betwixt and between” as I wrote about early in the pandemic.
The trapeze moment is the willing choice to move towards discomfort and suffering or the unknown. We’ve stepped into the crisis and must move to a posture of both unlearning and curiosity even if it is really uncomfortable. This moment is part of understanding that if we take a risk here, and make ourselves vulnerable to a process, then we may truly realize something new.
The world we live in has attempted to inoculate us against taking risks, or only taking “risks” when we’re certain of the outcome, which are not really risks at all. Yet the work of transformation is really about being willing to take the risk and moving to the place of not knowing. Releasing the old, while not yet quite receiving the new.
We have habits, persona’s and beliefs we’ve attached ourselves to that have formed our identity, but that no longer serve us. And the only way that you let go of these attachments so deeply ingrained is to be willing to pause, create space for reflection and be willing to “not know.”
The liminal space feels lonely, as if we have been abandoned. In many cases that is true. Relationships that are no longer healthy change or fade away. We have left the old behind, the job, the community, the friendships, the place. We feel vulnerable, exposed. As if we are supposed to know what to do, and we simply do not. It is disorienting and frustrating and we are tempted to do whatever we can to exit this space as fast as possible. We must not exit, but rather stay in it and look for guidance to support us. For this is where the real work is.
Embrace the Unknowing
What we know gets in the way of what we need to learn.
This journey of calling spans the arc of a lifetime. It is work that we take up individually but it also requires that we have people in our inner circle that we trust to speak wisdom into our lives.
If the pandemic season has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know. We have to be willing to engage complexity and ambiguity without rushing towards solutions and outcomes. This work starts as an internal journey that, over time, brings us out into the world and to be influenced and be influenced by others. We have to be willing to embrace the unknowing.
Master Enneagram teacher Suzanne Stabile says often “that this is a solitary work best done in community.”
So how do we embrace this journey, especially if we are in crisis?
- Find the right sherpa: Having the right guide with you is the only way you will get through this season. Think of them as your sherpas. A sherpa is more than just a tour guide. They have navigated this space before, it is familiar to them. They carry some of the burden with you and for you. They have tools and supplies with them that will be needed, but are more than you can carry yourself. There will be emotional moments in this process where you realize you can’t go it alone. It may uncover past hurts that you’ve not dealt with and must be worked through in a thoughtful and caring way. Addressing past traumas that may surface will help you recognize attachments that keep you stuck get and will prepare you for unlearning and the relearning–releasing so you can receive. Thinking about who you want alongside you on the way, who is in your wisdom council really matters. These sherpas may come in the form of a trusted friend, a skilled therapist, a spiritual director or a wise advisor. (Or all of the above) It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, but it should be people you really trust and you can lean into, who have tools and resources that you don’t have. Finding the right sherpa(s) for this journey, one who can carry the burden with you and walk with you into the place of vulnerability, will make all the difference in your journey
- Prepare for vulnerability: First, it is necessary here to make a clear distinction between transparency and true vulnerability. In the last post we defined vulnerability as exposure to meaningful risk. However, we often see transparency confused with vulnerability. Transparency is the willingness to share parts of my life in a narrative that I have crafted so that I am in control of the story. This is often confused for true vulnerability. True vulnerability is the willingness to submit yourself to the authority of another, or the authority of a circumstance in which you have little or no control. Vulnerability means I’m not crafting the story I want to be known. I have to be willing and ready to risk exposure even as I share those things that have meaning and implication for my own journey. People who resist to be true vulnerability are often seen as having character defects. That is how we experience them. They’re unwilling to take feedback and can appear defensive and arrogant. But there is something deeper going on, they are unwilling to risk exposure. They are full of fear. This journey requires a willingness to bare your soul and submit yourself to the authority of another, someone you trust, who loves you enough to be honest with you and then stay with you as you journey through the valley of confusion. It is only in becoming vulnerable, exposing oneself to risk, that true transformation can occur.
- Slow down and get curious: The antidote to confusion and not knowing is not hunkering down in self protection, or reverting back to existing practices and formulas to figure it all out. The antidote is slowing down to become genuinely curious. Paying attention to yourself and others, noticing what is going on around you, asking more questions. All of this will slowly reveal new insights and possibilities.
In the chrysalis, the larval cells are being consumed and the early shape of the new creature is beginning to emerge. But mostly what is present is a lot of goo and darkness. Words from one who has been there and writes of his experience:
It was in that silent waiting that I, at last, began to imagine a new life. But what would be its pattern, its shape? And when my wings finally dried, where would they bear me? As these questions began to form in me, they found an answer. And what was that answer? Not merely a form. Not merely a voice. But a friend. A friend who gave me tools to understand my life. A friend who taught me to use those tools. A friend who bore with me as I began to put them awkwardly to use. A friend who not only urged me toward the path of life, but who also bound herself – himself – to walking it with me…
They emerge in the midst of darkness as a form of light. They speak as voices of wisdom in a wilderness of transformation. They become friends who, not content to merely help you imagine a new life, choose also to indwell that life with you.
This is the sherpa, the trusted counselor, the spiritual director, who is with you on the journey. They walk with you and choose to indwell life with you for a season.
In our quest for meaning we are enculturated to look outside ourselves for answers, casting about like a caterpillar with wings duct-taped on. But we will never find answers apart from time in the chrysalis with a willingness to do the deep inner work.
There is only one problem from which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. And if I find him I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find him.Thomas Merton
If this is where you find yourself, in the valley of confusion and suffering, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust to walk with you, to be your sherpa. We all need those people who can believe for us and with us, even as we may not be able to believe for ourselves that there is hope.