Liminality

The subjective experience of being diagnosed with a serious illness like HIV/AIDS forces one, like it or not, to confront their own mortality in light of the impermanence of existence and gradually gives way to a process of reevaluating personal goals and priorities.  In a discussion of his novel, The Magic Mountain, written in English and published in The Atlantic in 1953, Thomas Mann states that "what [Hans Castorp, the protagonist] came to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health.”  For me, I entered liminal space — the in-between place where we are starting to leave one way of being for another — and it is there I remain even today, with no idea of what the future holds.

liminal space - columns

The most profound thing I have realized since my life’s nadir, the long awful Winter and Spring of 2006-07, is how easy it is for me to slip into all-or-nothing, either/or, binary ways of thinking:  I’m either going to live or I’m going to die, I’m either going to walk or I’m going to be in a wheelchair, and, of course, given that I have been follicly challenged since I was a young man in my 20’s, I’m either going to have hair or I’m going to be bald.  Yet, in each of these cases, and so many more, both/and were true.  It reminds me of a quote from Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

Liminal spaces are thresholds between worlds.  Normally we pass through them without much thought — we find ourselves in constant transit through foyers, elevators, doorways, staircases, corridors, subway or train stations, airports, and on roads; these spaces are neither “here” nor “there,” but they are immensely important.  We don’t give these transitional moments much attention, but they are places of transformation and change.  We enter them as a person in a place and leave into and as another.  What if, I increasingly began to think to myself, there is something here, in the middle, worth paying attention to?  The answer surprised me, but like most truths it was as simple as it was obvious.  Between being and becoming there is a constant — me.  Time and space change, I may even be the catalyst of their transformation, I may even be the object of their transforming power, but in the end the essence of who I am remains.

Liminal Spaces - Ferdinanda Florence

A prolonged illness and its aftermath can, for many, be a source of frustration and fatigue.  For others liminality promises transformation, and it was (and is) that opportunity I have tried to listen for as days turned into months, and months to years, since being discharged from the hospital.  I want to be clear; I am not suggesting, as some do, the prescriptive message of positive thinking applied to health struggles, particularly potentially fatal ones, which insists that the sick person should only be “brave" and report how life-affirming the whole experience has been — this is little more than a fetishizing of suffering and, I suspect, comes from a place of guilt.  For illness to be truly transformative, it must be acknowledged for what it is:  a loss, one that is, quite often, painful… and one that is, for the person suffering, a burden.

But it need not be a terminus.  It can be a journey that leads to new ways of thinking and being.  It can remind us that health, as a concept, is static, and absolute.  One either has it, or one does not.  But illness, both the experience of it and ultimately the ways it forces us to adapt, is dynamic.  It is the space between what was and what will be.  I do not wish it upon you nor could I have imagined my life taking this turn, but I can tell you it is not a cause for despair.  Pay attention to doorways leading to hallways you might have passed by in your haste were you not slowed down.  Who knows what you might find!

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