Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the audio addition of Nicole’s piece below – where she narrates her journey into liminal spaces and delves deeper into finding grace there . . . in the middle. (The Mudroom Podcast, Episode 5)
I was falling behind, dragging them down. I glimpsed it on their little faces—the fear gathering in their eyes, the shock at seeing their mother so vulnerable. Wasn’t I supposed to be the strong one, always the one taking up the lead? The tears started to roll down my five-year-old son’s cheeks and my heart shattered.
We were in the middle of an exercise illustrating what leaders or counselors would call the transition model. As part of a training experience for our upcoming international move to work for a non-profit, we found ourselves navigating a wobbly obstacle course of yoga balls and uneven chairs, a literal representation of the transition bridge that anyone going through major change experiences.
My family of four was tied to one another with cords and then connected to other people who represented the fears that might hold us back. That one person over there was our family that remained back home or the person who critiqued our move around the world. Another personified our doubts, like the devil sitting on our shoulders whispering lies in our ears.
It is in the place where it feels like there is nothing to hold onto that we can truly find out who is holding us.
As the ropes tightened and we tried to cross the makeshift bridge, they yanked us away from each other. My husband, Lee was in the lead, already to the last chair, the one that finally sat on level ground. He pulled Nadia toward him but Aidan was stuck between the precariously placed balls and a chair teetering on two legs. I was in the rear, floundering to keep up and barely hanging on to the edge of Aidan’s jacket.
Everything we had been learning about how difficult transition could be was being enacted in our very bodies. Each fear I had about our family being ripped apart by taking our kids to Bangladesh seemed to come true in those moments. When we finally reached a stable place where we could hold onto one another, I pulled them tight and Lee paused to pray. As the tears fell, he asked God to give us strength and to remind us to hold onto Jesus and to each other amid the instability.
I cannot count the times in the past five years that I have remembered that moment, felt that same fear, and longed for steady ground. The amount of transitions we’ve crossed over as a family since that day has been overwhelming: five moves, life in a developing country, crushed dreams, family health crises, the shaky return to Georgia, unemployment, anxiety, depression, changing churches, starting new careers mid-life, kids stepping into adolescence amid reverse culture shock, and the losses and grief of a global pandemic. It’s been one long bridge spanning the expanse of half a decade of our lives.
A well-known model of the internal battle we go through during major change comes from William Bridge who outlines the endings, neutral zone, and new beginnings we experience in the process. I disagree with the neutrality the language he gives to the middle stage implies; that middle ground is the yawning abyss we experience when we are plunged into the unknown. It is chaotic and destabilizing; there is nothing neutral about it.
My favorite expansion on this model is the one we were taught during that impactful exercise. We move from an old normal where we are settled and step out onto an unstable bridge. We make that initial decision or an event happens that throws our life out of the realm of what was before, into the unknown. We walk through the chaos of the in-between and there we encounter liminal space. Everything falls out from under us.
On the other side of that intervening place is acceptance, new beginnings, exploration, adaptation, and finally a new normal we can settle into. We cannot arrive on the other side, on stable ground, without learning to live in that place of suspension. It is there in the space between where the biggest opportunity for transformation exists. It is in the place where it feels like there is nothing to hold onto that we can truly find out who is holding us.
“The old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged,” says online Abbess and spiritual author Christine Valters Paintner, “thresholds are sacred places in the Celtic imagination where the veil between heaven and earth is considered thin…We put one foot in front of the other and the next step is revealed only as we are in movement. This demands a great deal of trust and listening for the whispers of the divine along the way.” It’s in these places where we feel like there is nothing to support us that we can discover the presence of God that we forgot to look for when we easily walked on steady ground. We find that we are enfolded in the love of God when we feel untethered.
In moments of despair while living in Bangladesh I experienced this liminal space like never before. I felt like I was on that precarious yoga ball all over again. The jobs we had uprooted our lives for evaporated and we felt completely rudderless. My family back in Georgia was in deep crisis. Lee was struggling with the language and I couldn’t make it without collapsing mid-day under the weight of depression in the searing tropical heat. Though we fiercely loved our friends and the life we were building there, we knew we needed to return to the U.S. Our children, however, were thriving in their international school. They had made it across the transition bridge before the two of us, finding their footing in South Asia. I felt like I was pulling them down all over again.
It was in these moments of complete unmooring that I cried out to God in new ways. I had no words and so I turned to the prayers of others, pouring over the cries of Brennan Manning to his Abba. I followed my counselor’s advice and stopped reading the Bible and instead meditated for weeks on a single scripture. I met with a Spiritual Director and practiced Imaginative Prayer. I sat in silent prayer, saying nothing at all and just asking God to make me aware of a loving presence I hadn’t taken the time to notice before.
We find that we are enfolded in the love of God when we feel untethered.
There was no magic formula that suddenly made me feel whole again. That’s another key teaching of the transition bridge. It isn’t a linear walk across the dark night back to stability. It is more like walking a labyrinth. We might find ourselves back on unsteady ground again sooner than we imagined, and we have to be willing to keep putting one foot in front of the other in this cyclical pilgrimage to the other side.
The secret I learned about thresholds is that they can become holy ground if we lean into the opportunity they present us. “Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling but in upheaval,” says Sue Monk Kidd. “We seem to have focused so much on exuberant beginnings and victorious endings that we’ve forgotten about the slow, sometimes torturous, unraveling of God’s grace that takes place in the ‘middle places.’”
On the other side looking back, I can see how they were there when I reached out for them—lifelines to hold onto when the path fell away. I now know that we have a choice when we are faced with the falling away: to see our vulnerability as weakness or let others enter into the liminal space with us. We can remain tethered to those that are further along the bridge than us; this is what grace looks like in the middle.
* Graphics by Amanda Tingle Taylor