June 16, 2008 by Jen
Did you ever have a doll or action figure that came with a hat or helmet? I’m not sure if it is a child’s propensity for destruction or the sense of mystery that pervades anything hidden. I do know that as a child, I was bound to remove all accessories from my toys.
Unfortunately, when a riding helmet is superglued onto a doll’s head, removing it has the same essential effect as scalping. Not a pretty sight, and colored pencil can only do so much to repair the damage.
I promise, there is a reason for this story.
I went to a swing dance on Saturday night. I knew a few people, from my contra dance group, but not many. The group was almost completely bisected into newbies and experts. Unfortunately, I didn’t fit into either group. As one of my dance partners candidly told me, “You’re not the best dancer here, but you’re pretty good.” The whole experience made me miss my college dance club even more.
I often find myself in this troublesome middle ground. More motivated than some, but not quite enough to seek the greatest challenges and thrills. Not satisfied with the how-would-you-like-your-burger? job, but not a candidate for president either. I’m the one who recites Shakespeare while walking, but not the one who stars on Broadway. Not an optimist by a long shot, but deep down, not truly a pessimist either.
In literary studies, we talk about the concept of “liminality.” Essentially, liminal space refers to the borders. Not one thing, but not the other. It is being in the middle, the undefinable space. C.S. Lewis might call these, “the Shadowlands”–impermanent and subject to displacement and dissolution.
People respond to uncertainty and liminality in different ways. Some of these “defense mechanisms” are barely recognizable as such.
Flippancy is one. If you convince yourself that nothing really matters, maybe the failure won’t seem like a big deal. If you limit your conversation to the weather, you can pretend that everything is fine.
Cynicism is another. If you convince yourself not to care, maybe the failure won’t hurt so badly. If you tell yourself to expect nothing better, you can pretend you aren’t disappointed. Not allowing yourself to depend on other people keeps you safe when they let you down.
On the surface, either technique is successful. But what is frightening is the way that outlook becomes reality. Sweet, romantic movies strike a chord in me that I would prefer left unstruck. If I scoff at the “cheesy” parts often enough, I lose my ability to appreciate them. All of a sudden, you realize that the helmet you set on your head is stuck. Spend enough time convincing yourself of something, and it can come true.
Somehow, you have to find a balance between reality and the superglued helmets that scar what they are meant to protect. Enough dreams to stay hopeful; enough pragmatism to stay real.
So where do you go from the middle, from that liminal space, from the defenses? For me, it’s ultimately about looking up instead of down, outside the shadows, where “…In your light we see light…” (Psalm 36:5-9).