“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” a friend told me recently. “I freaked out when the pandemic shut down my life. Now things are opening up again, and I’m freaking out about that. Am I crazy?”
She’s not crazy—and she’s not alone. This is a liminal moment in our collective history. “Liminal” means “on the threshold.” At the moment of crossing a threshold we’re neither in nor out, so in a sense, we’re nowhere. This is unnerving, no question. But if we use it right, it can also be a huge opportunity.
In many traditional cultures, thresholds were seen as magical zones, places of infinite possibility. But accessing this magic requires some counterintuitive steps. The key is to stop grasping for control, for the feeling of solid ground, and relax with the fact that we’re not sure what will happen next.
Most of us do exactly the opposite: in uncertain circumstances, we try to focus hard, think through solutions, and control outcomes. This often leads to feelings like panic and overwhelm. Relaxing into uncertainty, on the other hand, switches on the superpower of human imagination. It takes us from terrified confusion into openness, curiosity, and most of all, creativity.
Creativity is the cure for the uncertainty and overwhelm of a liminal time. The parts of the brain involved in creativity aren’t prone to fear, so as we enter a creative mindset, we feel stronger and happier. In fact, we may end up becoming fascinated with what’s happening. We may begin to deal with our situations the way children deal with new toys, taking stock of them, trying out new things, and enjoying the entire process. In a word, playing.
If you’re going through a liminal time, try this. First let yourself worry, obsess, and think about any problems that may be facing you. Then, drop the whole subject and do something relaxing. Pet your cat, bake a cake, make yourself a paper hat—anything that helps you feel at ease.
This pattern of action (thinking intensely about a difficult situation, then relaxing) programs our brains to come up with creative solutions. Puzzling about a problem primes our brains to seek creative solutions. If we follow this effort with a period of relaxation, the brain keeps working the problem without our even noticing. When we’re least expecting it, a brilliant solution may pop into our minds. Psychologists call this “the Eureka effect” (“eureka” is Greek for “I’ve got it!”).
This is how human beings have invented everything from shoes to spaceships. We aren’t as strong or fast as many animals, but we can use difficult situations to create new ideas like no other creatures on earth. And often, the more difficult our circumstances, the more brilliant our ideas.
For example, during the awful struggle of World War II, the British codebreaker Alan Turing invented the first computer. In the Old South, enslaved people made quilts that contained coded instructions for reaching the underground railroad. They traded this information in full view of the unsuspecting slave owners.
Creative solutions to less overwhelming problems can also be ingenious. An engineer named George de Mestral was trying to make a new kind of fastener when he took a break to walk his dog. They both came back covered with burrs—which gave de Mestral the inspiration for inventing Velcro. Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words. When his editor challenged him to write a book using only 50 words, he came up with the immensely playful Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.
As you face your own changes, challenges, and constraints, try this “attention, intention, no tension” approach. You’ll find that change offers many opportunities to do old things in new ways. For instance, notice which activities and people you missed most during the Covid lockdowns. Also take stock of anything you liked about changes the pandemic brought to your life. Maybe you enjoyed wearing more comfortable clothes, holding meetings online instead of in a conference room, or simply cutting back on the number of things you tried to do every day.
Thinking creatively, you may see that you don’t need to go back to the way things were before everything changed. You can keep what you loved from the pre-Covid era, add it to whatever worked for you during lockdown, and combine them into a life that serves you better than anything has so far.
The creation of anything new begins with the disruption of the existing order. Most of us have had our lives seriously disrupted over the past months and years. We’re crossing a huge new threshold together. That means we have unprecedented freedom to remake everything. So let yourself get a little freaked out, but then relax into this strange moment. Before long, you’ll find yourself creating a whole new world.
This essay was featured in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.