I have been involved in discussions lately investigating the place and purpose of liminal spaces (specifically in education), particularly in light of the uncertainty surrounding Syrian refugees.
In my googling (aka home “researching”), I came across an interesting article. It wasn’t specifically about liminal spaces, or Syrian refugees for that matter. However, something she wrote struck me as I have been reflecting on what liminal spaces represent to many of us.
Although change is a necessary aspect of growing, learning, evolving and living in general, most people are uncomfortable with it. Change doesn’t always represent something bad. In fact, it can be something wonderful (e.g. becoming a parent). However, many people don’t face uncertainty with ease. Liminality is defined as the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation” (Wikipedia, 2015) – being on the threshold of something new, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. Ambiguity and disorientation are rarely qualities that one strives for in their daily lives. Most prefer certainty, structure and security, with the occasional “planned” change to liven things up a bit.
However, how do we cope nowadays when we are faced with liminal spaces? As I read this article, I wondered if part of our coping is that we become more consumed with something else instead – “So many experiences. So much we’re doing. So busy our brains. So fragmented our lives and so fluid and so busy. We see too much. So much, it’s hard for something to leave an impact.” (El-Katatney, 2015).
Today, we are able to distract ourselves from reality with just the touch of a finger to a phone. For many people, this means that we can even steer ourselves mentally away from the uncertain, ambiguous spaces that we may be experiencing. Not permanently, of course, but enough to not be consumed by it perhaps.
But, what happens when you can’t escape that uncertainty, that ambiguity, that disorientation? For many of the refugees who have had to flee Syria for their lives have lived ‘civilised’ lives up until recently. They have had businesses, education, careers, hopes and dreams. They, too, were possibly able to distract themselves from uncertainty a few years ago with their own busy lives. But, when that ability to remove yourself from a situation – physically, mentally or emotionally – is not possible, how do you cope then?
I wonder if that is perhaps why some people nowadays struggle to relate to the plight of refugees and countries barricade borders and refuse asylum in their country? Have we become so used to resisting our own liminal spaces and places of uncomfortable uncertainty that we cannot truly empathise with the situation refugees are facing every day? No one can fully understand the trauma that a refugee may have experienced (or still be experiencing). But I do wonder whether we would be more inclined to show humanitarian kindness if we were more familiar with liminal spaces ourselves.
As an educator, how does this affect me? Well, I wonder whether we should be encouraging students to allow themselves to be accepting of not having all the answers. To be open to experiencing uncertainty from time to time. To role model to our students that life isn’t a neatly mapped out pathway for everyone to follow like a board-game. To stop and reflect for a moment. Perhaps it would be helpful as teachers to encourage our students to recognise their own areas of ambiguity and disorientation (academically or emotionally); help them identify their feelings towards those spaces; and demonstrate how to embrace that some liminal spaces are in fact the start of something good. Perhaps that would be a good place to start to challenge what seems to be a resistance to experience liminal spaces in today’s westernised world.