“Liminal Space” is one of those concepts that literature majors like to bring up all the time so that we can sound profound, confuse the freshman in the class, or believe that we can tease deep philosophical meaning out of every mention of a doorway or a staircase in a book. It is defined as a kind of no man’s land between two spaces, a place that has no definition in its own right. In this, it differs from merely transitional spaces, like hallways. If you’re in a hallway, you’re not in a room, but you most definitely are in a hallway. A truly liminal space, however, cannot be described other than being between A and B.
The presence of a character in liminal space is supposed to suggest that the character feels adrift, does not fit in, or is undergoing a transition. Usually this is construed as uncomfortable for the character.
But don’t we all exist in liminal space? Or is it just those of us who grew up singing along with Rudolph and Herbie the elf on that Christmas special, wishing we too could find the Island of Misfit Toys?
Recently I’ve found myself saying quite often that I’m feeling stress/distress¹ because I feel like I’m existing in some liminal space. I feel like I am the only one who is not A or B. Or I feel like, if only I could be fully A or commit entirely to B, I could be happy, but being caught in between two phases of my life, two different options, or two different paths leaves me feeling lost. We all probably feel like this sometimes, because dichotomies are based on stereotypes. Anything that tries to polarize people completely, into gay or straight, masculine or feminine, liberal or conservative, is going to miss some of the subtleties that make humans a gradation instead of a rainbow of diversity. But sometimes I think we feel even more caught in the middle because society refuses to acknowledge that there even is a middle ground between two extremes. There is no accepted way of being both A and B, and therefore our desire not to complete give in to either one, not to completely give up on either one is a constant tension in our lives. The opposing options that pull us apart are different for each person, but here are the ones I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.
Introvert vs. Extrovert
I hate being alone. I hate being in large groups of people who know me, like at parties. I like when people are around, as long as it’s only one or two. I love being alone, anonymous in a crowd of strangers.
Mainstream Culture (traditional view of success) vs. Counter Culture (nontraditional view of success)
I couldn’t really come up with a better way to name this one. What I mean, is that a lot of my friends are artists, either trying to make money off that or holding down some random job to supplement their income while they do art for a pittance. And then there are the people I admire who followed the traditional road to success, like having a respectable job that they got by getting a respectable degree. I have a decent office job, but I’m at a point where I either need to resign myself to sticking around in this entry level job so that I have time to pursue my art, or striving to go to grad school or work my way up the ranks to get financial security, which may leave no time for my art. If I do one or the other, I could count myself successful to some extent, but sitting around and not doing either of those is definitely not success. It’s also the fact that I fit into a world of hippies, vegetarians, environmentalist, gay rights activists, people with nose rings and tattoos, that just feels the complete opposite of the “corporate” world, but there are many punk/hippie/alternative people whom I question for their inability to ever reign it in and act appropriate to a more serious occasion. And, despite my great fascination with body art, I have always been too wishy-washy to ever commit to anything more risky than multiple earrings.
Adventurous vs. Cautious
On the one hand, I have tendency to over-analyze things, but on the other I have a tendency to be impulsive. I agreed to go on a week-long canoe/hiking trip with some individuals I wasn’t very close to, even though I had never once been camping in my life. I also have avoided taking yoga classes for years, even though I’d really love to, because I’m too nervous at the concept of walking into the studio and not knowing what to expect. I’ve bought several Groupons and passes to a yoga studio near my house, but let all of them expire without going. If you gave me a hypothetical situation and asked me if I would do it, I’m not sure even I could give you the right answer, because I’m nervous when I least expect it and bold when I least expect it as well.
1. Linguistic puzzle of the day: since adding “dis-” typically creates a word meaning the opposite of whatever you add it to, should “distress” not be stressful?