Running the Gauntlet of the Unknown

Through the years I’ve written and taught extensively about “liminal time,” that pregnant pause between what is no longer and what is not yet. Although liminal time is a known stage in all rites of passage, most people have never heard of it. Whether we’re talking about a pandemic, a war, a refugee crisis, or even a man or womanhood ritual, a graduation, or a new job far away from family and friends, the stages (though not the intensity) of a rite of passage are the same.

  1. Separation from life as you have known it.
  2. Passing through liminal time– a journey through the unknown that begins with grieving. The landscape is foreign, and the outcome uncertain. There is no map of the territory. Running the gauntlet of the unknown is a challenge, a vision quest. Remember the film, The Life of Pi? The ship that Pi, his parents, and the animals from their circus-were traveling on suddenly sank. Pi found himself adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger, doing his best to survive. A wise old Pi, his life informed by that terrible night sea journey, lived to narrate his story. Tom Hanks’ classic film, Cast Away, is another tale about finding strength and wisdom in the unknown.
  3. The Return– Those who make it through liminal time with courage and heart return to a transformed life bearing precious gifts: perspective, gratitude, courage, wisdom. These post traumatic strengths get shared with the community and uplift the whole.

The 3 stages of a rite of passage define the archetype of The Hero’s Journey– a narrative arc that makes a certain genre of adventure films inspiring and satisfying. Unfortunately, not everyone makes it through the gauntlet of the unknown. Some of us emerge traumatized. Other embittered or depressed. Some don’t make it through at all.

Through years of research and clinical experience I’ve identified several commonalities of resilient people. They are a model for the rest of us:

  1. Human Connection. The irony of self-isolation is that virtual connection is now flourishing. I haven’t spent this much time talking to family and friends for years. They may be far away, but the same technology that it was so tempting to demonize as distancing, has turned out to offer deep connection in this wild time.
  2. Realism. We can’t cope in a way that optimizes choice unless we face reality head on. We need to hear the truth and look directly into the eyes of the beast. My husband Gordon calls this Optimizing Realism. Governor Andrew Cuomo is the embodiment of this character strength. It is the bedrock of effective leadership.
  3. A vision of what could be. In the film The Martian, in which Matt Damon gets marooned on Mars, the whole planet shares the same vision. Bring Him Home. To the extent that our whole country can share the vision of flattening the curve through social distancing, we will beat this thing together.
  4. Faith in what’s possible. Remember John McCain? He was a POW who emerged from the hell of captivity as a powerful leader. When interviewed about how he survived, he gave credit to his faith. Faith doesn’t have to be religious by the way… it can be faith in human goodness, ingenuity, or your own ability to handle whatever comes your way.
  5. Creativity. Think about all the folks who are making protective masks out of office supplies, or by sewing them. Dyson and other engineers figuring out how to make ventilators from parts that are still available.
  6. Helping others. Giving aid in whatever way you can reverses the flow of attention from your own problems to how you can help and inspire others. As a result, you feel better (except when you are overstressed like many of our healthcare providers).
  7. Self-Regulation. Knowing how to calm your nervous system through breathing, meditation, prayer, managing emotions, moving your body, listening to music, talking with a friend, following a routine, and getting out into nature are basic to resilience. Without such tools, your body’s survival system overrides reason, leading to poor choices, stress, and distress.

Stay tuned for tips on managing your emotions. Meanwhile, many blessings dear friends. Please stay safe and give others the gift of safety by staying home, no matter what your governor has to say.

1 reply
  1. Claire Hall
    Claire Hall says:

    This reading meant so much to me. 3.5 years ago i was diagnosed with COPD – I knew
    I was sick but when I read on the web that it is an end of life disease I become dee[ly depresed
    and my mind just wirred with ideas of what to do. I planned my end of life papers, and funeral. But then met a fabulous Pulmonologist – Dr. Sandra Karana who told me what to do, got me into PT programs, and gave me so much hope, and love. This past March I needed minor surgery on my leg, and after I got home I had all the known symptoms of COVID-19, and slept for weeks. and now need to be on oxygen 24 -7, and very tired to exercise. This reading helped me so much to see what my next step needs to be. Starting with Faith im my ability to help myself!!! Thanks, be well and have peace.


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