Liminal Events: Life pre- and post-pandemic

Liminal events serve as psychological thresholds. There's a before and there's an after, and they change how we see the world. We're all experiencing a global one right now.

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I was listening to an interview with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk recently (well worth listening to by the way, Palahnuik is an interesting guy and his perspectives on creativity are always fascinating), where he talked about the effects of liminal events on people – these are culturally designated periods of change and transition, like Halloween, Christmas or New Year.

These traditional events often have long-reaching roots back in time. They mark periods of psychological change, often in tune with the cycles of nature (People may be more familiar with the antonym of ‘liminal’ - ‘subliminal’ – as in ‘subliminal messages’, or ones that are outside or below what we can consciously perceive. Liminal events then, are events or moments in time that we’re consciously aware of, and thus have an effect on our thinking).

These events are collective rites of passage. It doesn’t matter how much you care about or personally celebrate Christmas, the period affects you psychologically. There’s a ‘before Christmas’ and an ‘after Christmas’. We use annual and seasonal events to help us psychologically progress with time. Part of the purpose is to avoid stagnation, on both the cultural and the individual level; there’s always something to look forward to.

And every so often then, there are major, and unexpected (or unplanned at least) ones that change the course of history. We demarcate recorded history into points before and after the alleged existence of Jesus (or the formation of the early roots of Western society at any rate). Before Christ, Anno Domini. Football history in the UK falls into pre-and-post war categories; many fans are uninterested in football records and achievements that occurred before the war.

It’s not that the war changed football much in the short-term, but history and the world itself are seen as such different things before then, there was such a momentous shift in the collective psychology of the world, that events are seen as of lesser importance before the war. It’s like we were a different species, psychologically, in some ways. And even simple football was different.

Many fans of music count the invention of pop charts – at least psychologically – as the invention of modern music, and thus music worth listening to. Bob Stanley’s fantastic book Yeah Yeah Yeah is an account of music from that period on, and gives a good illustration of why the invention of charts had such an effect on musical culture, and thus world culture and psychology.

At any rate, we’re going through one big liminal event at the moment, which is looking like it’ll take place over the course of years, rather than weeks or months as previously thought. And it’s looking like it’ll be seen as being as big a deal as the second world war. Individual periods of lockdown and re-opening may serve as smaller psychological battles. Each country might have its own day for commemorating, unofficially or officially, the day that ‘war’ was declared – the day of the announcement of an official government lockdown. And hopefully, we’ll have a day at some point where we can officially celebrate that fact that “it’s over”.

But the effect of this moment in time is going to change history, whether it’s purely because of the virus or the human response to it. There will be a before and after. And each period of lockdown, will, on a shorter scale and timeline, prove to be a liminal event of its own. Each one will provide its own time for reflection, its own miniature crisis of the soul, its own test of our personal and collective resolve, and its own period of reintegration with others afterwards. And with each liminal event comes some measure of psychological growth or change.

The first step back towards something resembling normal interaction with friends and family was strange – to me at least. I’m sure I’m not the only one. This was the effect of coming up for fresh air having had our heads submerged underwater for the previous three months. A new layer of psychological authenticity was revealed. We all had time to reflect, whether we wanted to or not. The difficult moments showed us new sides of ourselves. And these are unwrapped and revealed when we try to slot back into our normal routines and groups.

None of these changes, transitions, or shifts are inherently good or bad. Most people seem to love Christmas, for example, though many of course don’t, for the interruption it causes to collective psychological functioning for a period of weeks and months, or perhaps for reasons of personal hurt or trauma that are associated with it, or accentuated by it. And some people claim not to care much about it at all. They continue to work, their routine is barely interrupted, they feel no festive cheer nor slump. But like it or not, and no matter whether you think you’re affected by it or not: it exists. It happens. Because collectively we’ve acknowledged and agreed it’s happening.

This liminal moment, and the series of smaller ones within it, are happening whether we like it or not, whether we’re affected by it or not, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. There’s a before and after Christmas every year. If it doesn’t affect you directly, and if you see it as someone else’s problem or interest, it still requires you to prepare and activate a psychological response in order to deal with or manage your experience of it.

And so it is with the pandemic, and so it is with the current 6-week lockdown. There will be a before and after period. We’re going to be different people afterwards, and some measure of growth will have happened. The effects of that growth remain to be seen.

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