Thursday, July 10, 2014


Bewilderment is the true comprehension.
~Martin Luther

It’s not the bewilderment -- it’s what you do about it.  It’s being aware that you are bewildered and admitting it, even liking it.  Look at the root of the word:  “be wild.”  Wild is potential.

When anthropologists started realizing that other groups in other ecologies (desert, jungle, Chinese cities, African pastoral tribes) organized things differently for the sake of their survival, they talked about “structure.”  The social rules and economic arrangements.  But as soon as one recognizes a concept, it’s interesting to turn it inside-out:  non-Euclidean geometry, non-Newtonian physics.  So what would non-structure be like?  Would it be madness or would it enable a leap in “growth” -- i.e. a better adjustment to the conditions of life?  We're finding out.
All following illustrations are by this photographer.

This is partly what “liminality” is about: a way to escape structure for an interval.  There is a great deal to read about these theories but it is best to start with Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner who wrote before our trivializing society turned it all into “birthday cards.”  A person like me wants “religion” to be raw, re-structuralable, open to renegotiation, surprising and intense.  Many people find this disconcerting.  I was disconcerted to realize that my cousins do not want their boat rocked.  (Not that they have escaped the waves, but that risk is something they want never to repeat.)  I will not judge them.

Some of the aversion to change, danger, new information, and so on is probably physiological, which is why I look at my cousins so closely.  At the level of brain neurons (temperament), they have core assumptions about a rightly lived life.  Interestingly, they are not church-goers.  They will not talk theology.  They are domestic family women and one does not go white-water rafting in a nest.  It’s not just a matter of marriage, since I have cousins who never married but express domesticity through teaching and the like.  But even spinsterhood is not definitive, since I am hunkered down alone in a house (15 years now) where I change very little.  The difference is that the quote taped up over my computer is “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."  I think as wild as I can.  But I feed the cats on time.

Liminality is something like being “through the looking glass” where things are reversed, but also unpredictable.  It is also like being homesick, where the formerly loved and familiar has not yet been replaced by attachment to a new context, even one that was chosen and wanted, maybe better suited than the previous home.  There’s something wired-in, physiological, about confronting difference.  

The research on brain organization and function seems to suggest that some kinds of neurons are clustered like computer documents in folders, which can be nested in other folders, deeper and deeper layered.  What I find suggestive is the idea that a “deep” experience can reach the deepest and most inclusive pre-suppositional folders of neurons in order to open them to change.

This photo is an exception -- not O'Neill.

The original thought about liminality was related to coming-of-age ceremonies in indigenous tribes, a way of “killing” the child who was dependent and incompetent, in order to “create” the adult who would now be reliable and productive.  Or at least try to be.  I don’t know whether anyone has written about “boot camp” as a way of making a random bunch of teenagers into warriors.  Probably.  I recently watched “Blood Diamond” in which it was demonstrated how a good boy could be made into a vicious renegade who would turn on his own father, simply by forcing the son to do things so repugnant that they tore him out of his identity.  

The human ability to re-form psychologically is part of our great success in so many ecologies.  It is the heart of adaptability.  But there are other forces trying to hold us into groups on many scales, trying to keep us committed to some ideal loyalty.  Preventing any different in the profitable status quo.  So white “Christian” “American” people try to send brown Indio children back to their gang-ridden deaths rather than letting them be admitted to the US.  

Somehow in some minds, burning a boy alive (Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16) was equivalent and justified as revenge for the deaths of three boys on the “other side.”  But horrific acts, like the death of Mathew Shepherd, can force us into the wilderness of true comprehension or at least make us seek it.

Or sometimes they don’t.  One school shooting after another does not pry the fingers of the NRA off gun triggers, but only makes them strengthen their commitment to arming everyone.  The symbolism is obsessive, locked, a kind of repetition madness.  Could liminality ceremonies move such people into a new context -- make them understand the world differently? What is it they see that makes them believe they are under attack, in danger of being destroyed, forced to take extreme measures?   What is our fascination with the “extreme” about?  Does it indicate power?

Such madness has got to be physiological, inscribed in the neurons, connected to identity, beyond the reach of rational thought.  Some have suggested forcible ingestion of Ecstacy, the drug, or at least LSD.  But it is also possible to evoke auto-secretions of mind-opening drugs.  Sweats.  Retreats.  Yoga.  Snake-handling.

Sunday morning services can’t always be major experiences, life-changing at some deep level.  It would just exhaust us all.   But most ministers who are effective preachers have had someone burst into tears or even cry out, reacting to something that was said or possibly just released by the experience of a peaceful place with music and people of good will.  They only needed a trigger.  Possibly there is some kind of reverse-parallel with a destructive shooter’s sudden paroxysm of violence, willingness to cross a line, a compulsion to do so.

I do not think obsessed people are bewildered people, but rather over-committed to their own preoccupations without realizing anything outside that bubble.  But Luther, compelled to go into the wilderness by his broken trust in the Roman Catholic bureaucracy, discovered that there was a plenitude to comprehend.

In a completely different metaphor, I’ve heard people talk about feeling that they were going to drown unless they kept struggling in the only way they knew.  But when they surrendered and relaxed, they found that the water was holding them up -- they were floating.  There’s a suggestion of suicide about this idea, which makes it scary, but it IS a kind of suicide to let the old self die so that a new self has a space in which to form.  Waiting for a guarantee and preview of that new self is not possible.  You have to “become” into the terrifying future, only partially glimpsed.  But sometimes all you have to do is to stand up -- you may be standing in shallow water.  A Sunday morning service can get us all on our feet.


interview with the photographer at

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