Disaster, Shock and Liminality

Posted: May 27, 2011 in Uncategorized
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When people voluntarily or involuntarily are thrust into a radical time of change, an event or passage that strips away the dependable structure,  anthropologists like Victor Turner described them as having passed into a “liminal” time. Liminal existence is defined by its “inbetweenness” – the sensation of free-floating, detached, all the balls in the air.

This liminal period can be ushered in by life changes – graduating from school, going through a divorce, entering the wilderness of widowhood, going through war, having a baby, passing through the middle passages of life, and experiencing a cultural rite of passage. But liminal existence also appears in the wake of tremendous disaster. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Twin Towers  and Pentagon attack on 9/11 and now the Joplin Tornado thrusts not only individuals but entire groups of people – like cities and even nations – into social liminality. It is a state of great dis-ease and disorientation, an inability to find familiar coordinates.

When my brother and I stood in the middle of the Joplin tornado kill zone and beheld the stripping of all familiar structures from our sight, we spoke of how strangely inbetween it felt. We, like everyone else, had become, in Victor Turner’s language, liminal beings. Not forever, but most surely for now. Where is something solid on which we may stand?

Today my brother texted me and said that he was finding a way to set up a new temporary base of operation for his work due to the destruction of his office building. And one of the reasons he gave was that he just needed to do something that seemed ordinary, normal, typical. And so we do. People are often surprised to hear that a new widowed person wants to get back to work. But that is not strange at all. We all seek out the touchstones of the familiar. And so it is following the Joplin tornado. This is one of the reasons that houses of worship will be well attended at first. Happy pastors will mistake this surge for a new spiritual awakening. That is not so. After about six weeks attendance will drop down to the pre-crisis levels as people emotionally adjust and return to their old patterns.

As we stood in line on Wednesday, seeking a permit to enter the disaster zone, we did so with many other persons seeking to do the same thing. The only reason they were in that line was that they had either lost a place to live or a business that they owned or in which they worked. We all had a shared liminality at that point. And because of it were bonded together in an unusual kind of way. We talked with others with unusual familiarity, having shared the same tragedy together. Victor Turner calls that new liminal sense of solidarity communitas. You find it all the time. People served in the military together and survived the same campaign. School mates traveled on the same team. And then there are the survivors of disasters or even common illness. There exists a solidarity of the liminal.

It takes a while to traverse the liminal passage. We certainly don’t want the state of being to become permanent, to become stuck there. The word, liminal, comes from the Latin, limens, which means threshold. We’ve crossed the threshold and are free-falling for a time. The encouraging thing is that there is more opportunity for transformation in that liminal space than anywhere else. I can become a new creature, if I allow it, that is.

______________________

For more on liminality see: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Liminal+Realtiy+and+Transformational+Power%3A+Tim+Carson&x=12&y=20

Limnal Reality and Transformational Power (University Press of America, 1997)

Comments
  1. Jane Loudermilk Butt says:

    Wow, this post certainly hit home.

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