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Liminality

The Most Exclusive Club Ever

Gotta love Ms Makeda.  Always dropping knowledge on new, obscure, areas of the English language that are seldom, if ever explored.  And then looking at you as if you’re crazy for not thinking it normal.  But at the end of it all, I’m humbled and more knowledgeable for it, both of which are just fine by me thank you very much.   With my luck, the other day she blessed me with “liminality.”

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual

And with that word, suddenly we had captured us both in a nutshell.  I, the reformed financier and consultant technocrat now turned social entrepreneur with a belief in change from the bottom up and her, an Angela Davis wannabe cum DC policy wonk who believes in the children.

So kiddos, it’s storytime…..

A couple of days ago, my friend shared this quote to me (via E.B. White)

‎”I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

My first reaction was…naaaaaaah.  Putting up my defensive like a Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag.  I mean how uncommitted must one be to not actually fully dedicate themselves to “improving” the world.  Well, actually, upon further reflection, so supremely so that everyone would be uncommitted and undedicated, myself included.  So, of course, as people are wont to do, I had to change my definition to something that would make me feel better about my shortcomings and make it clear that, I was actually fully dedicated after all.

But, then again, is it a shortcoming?  Or is it more a function of the state of liminality that we all inhabit to some extent, stuck between the planes of desiring to change the world and make the necessary sacrifices needed to have maximum impact, and the trappings of dapper threads and a 5 star in French Polynesia.  You know…”doing well by doing good.”

Now don’t get me wrong, and trying to put judgment aside, some people sacrifice more than others.  Some are legitimate heroes who I admire and strive to be like as much as I can (falling short most of the time).  Some talk a better game than the work they are willing to put in.  And still some others can’t see past their own face.  It’s all a spectrum and it’s really just a matter of where you fall (and, more importantly, where you wish to fall on it), as exhibited by the figure below.  As you can see though, based on my theory, it goes without saying that the more you sacrifice, the more likely you are to be successful in maximizing your impact.  I guess that would be “doing not as well by doing more good.”

This is why certain criticisms of liberals and progressives by conservatives are not actually as ridiculous as they may first seem.  Calling Elizabeth Warren a hypocrite is unfair, and to be clear, I am an early adopter fan of hers, but the fact that she’s a multimillionaire and her income puts her firmly in the 1% opens up the opportunity for people to combine the words “limousine” and “liberal” (or latte liberal to update the term) when describing her once again (as they did with John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi before her for instance).  I concede that sacrifice is a relative measure as well.  For instance, Warren could easily be making 20x if she had used her skills to protect corporations from people instead of the other way around.  So, it’s more than admirable that she fights for the “middle class” (aside: when did we stop fighting for the “poor?”) with policy proposals that would require her to sacrifice her wealth and there is a long history of other rich Americans doing the same (FDR, RFK come immediately to mind).  I’m not questioning her bonafides at all, since she does way more than most, but instead just providing an example only to demonstrate that there is always more one can do.

So while there may be outliers, such as Warren and co. mentioned above, that have considerably larger impact than their level of “sacrifice” (and therefore fall in the blue section of the figure), more often than not, that is not the case and people probably cluster around the arrow.  This leads to (or is a function of?) the combination of the desire for personal comfort with a fear of not falling on the left side of the arrow in the grey…in other words, a fear that one might sacrifice and end up with little to nothing to show for it in terms of impact.  But that is a self-perpetuating fear since the fear reinforces the outcome. And this is the limit of liminality in my mind.  A limit on impact. And it affects just about all of us.  I know it affects both myself and Ms Makeda daily.

Really, only at the extremes do the feelings of liminality start to dissipate.  You know, for instance, if you operate like this…chances are you have solved your feelings of liminality.

At the same time, if you look like this >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> you’ve probably solved it also.  But really, the reason that Gandhi  and Mother Theresa were so special is not because their goals were so different from you, me, and anyone else who cares about people, but because they were willing to give up (almost) everything in order to achieve that goal.  That’s pretty fucking awesome.  And, yet, it’s why they’re (the only?) members of the most exclusive club ….ever.

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