How we use our uniqueness to walk through liminal spaces with our heads held high
As I am midway through my first year as an MBA student, I pause to reflect on my individual journey as a military servicemember and as a Polynesian (of Samoan and Tongan descent), thousands of miles away from home. I struggle to find what innate virtue I possess that keeps me moving through this life, constantly in flux, challenging the frame in which I picture the world.
Thanks to a dear friend and my sister, I don’t have to look far: the concept of liminality closely matches what I consider this virtue to be, and is a way of explaining my thinking behind the decisions that have gotten me to this point. Liminality is a term, made famous by anthropologist, Victor Turner, to describe a turbulent time in one’s personal journey; people in liminal states are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.1” However, for this writing, I anchor my definition of liminality in its use in literature and art, as “intrinsically linked to its function of providing a safe space for cultural release, in the ambiguous figure of a monster.2” The monster is the visual tool I use to illustrate my fear of the unknown.
As I have progressed in this life, through the liminal spaces between my childhood and the military, and from the military to where I am currently, I have been fortunate to have combined these temporary states by tying together my thoughts and experiences throughout.
There are moments of doubt in making the leap across liminal stages, moments where it feels safer to stay put. Finding safety in familiar settings is a valid response, but failure to try risks your chances of exploring whole new worlds, though I can’t promise a smooth journey. These thresholds hold space for my crucibles, and through this writing, I share mine with the sincere hope that someone else finds strength, as I have, in being different.
Stage 1: Preliminal Rite
This phase begins the way all heroes’ journeys begin, with events transpiring that force an unassuming protagonist to make a decision between living the same life, or being bold and taking a leap of faith.
My father left for war shortly after I was born, so my mother made the lone trek back to American Samoa, with two young boys and a newborn baby. She made my brothers and I learn English first as well. We would run off with our friends to speak Samoan with them, but they could tell. We were different.
Strike One: Learning English as my first language.
Polynesian culture is centered around family, and a cultural feudal system where family names give you status and authority over others. It was taboo to question authorities, but I grew up with the only TV on the island and I watched Looney Toons on the weekends. Here the seeds of rebellion were planted, but lay dormant. We viewed elders not as gods, but as goofballs.
Strike Two: I don’t think like my friends think.
My father is Tongan and my mother is Samoan. This made me and my brothers ‘afakasi, half-castes. Long ago, Tonga and Samoa were warring nations, and while those days are long past, animosity for each other still lurks beneath the surface. With the last name Kava, any status I might have had was overshadowed by the fact I was not purebred.
Just as I was wading my way out of the bullying cesspool that was kindergarten through junior high school, I was sent to Tonga to live with my grandparents. The branding of an ‘afakasi transferred across cultures, as some Tongans knew I was not purely one of them.
Strike Three: Being ‘Afakasi
I am out.
But in my second year of living in Tonga, during family prayer, my grandfather said something to me that has been a lighthouse during times when I am lost. Without prompting, he said: it doesn’t matter if you are Samoan or Tongan. A rugby player or doctor. You are first and foremost a child of God, and you are a Kava. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. To know my grandfather is to know someone who never lived by the rules, and here he was giving me permission to be a little like him, to live my life by my own rules.
His call to action threatened my sense of safety in familiarity, as I got shoved toward my liminal space. This space, my monster, was waiting for me on the border between my present and my future, and I had to decide if I would risk it granting me safe passage to the other side, or let it consume me.
Being an ‘afakasi is a social construct I let my surroundings place on me, not quite sure I belonged in one world or the other. What my grandfather said formed bridges for me to travel between worlds, as a Samoan, as a Tongan, as myself. The mental walls crumbled, and the power that the stares and mumbling whispers had over me was no longer there. I had agency over my liminal stage, I didn’t have to be afraid of my monster anymore.
Stage 2: Liminal Rite
If the preliminal stage is where I became aware of my change and made the decision to change, then the liminal phase is where the transformation began. This phase “is the most dangerous, mysterious, and going through it successfully is a prerequisite for completing the entire rite successfully.4” The liminal stage typically involves a guide to help you through this journey, which in this case was my wife. However, like the great Cornel West said, while I undergo a transformation, old tendencies and proclivities remain.
In the spring of 2019, I was deployed to the Middle East when more than the usual amount of chaos raged in North East Syria. The U.S. strategy in the fight against the Islamic State took an unexpected turn, as military and state department officials scrambled to generate new plans. This was my first experience along the jagged edge between a strategy’s perception and its operational reality. Deeds did not match words, and once again I was shoved into a space that is hard to define, much less comprehend.
My monster accompanied me when I left the Middle East and returned home with residue of that experience lingering in my head. I was at a crossroads, deciding how to deal with that experience. Again, there was safety in taking the traditional military career path. While leaving the service outright was the scariest option by far, I also had the option to go back to school. This was not an easy choice to make, as I struggled with myself for a year. If it wasn’t for my wife, I don’t know what I would have done.
My wife is Canadian, and until she met me, her only connection to any military was her great grandfather who fought in the British Army during World War II. With two young boys, together we had made a home in North Carolina, with an amazing supporting cast of friends and neighbors who became family. With the help and support of my wife, I ultimately decided to stay in service, but go back to school, uprooting my family to move to Minnesota to pursue my MBA degree. I gave myself permission to place my orthodoxy—developed from years of wearing the uniform in a glass case—to one side, with the option to destroy it anytime I needed.
Although this stage calls for a “death” of the old me, I did not arise from the ashes as a brand new phoenix. I still have my old “gangster proclivities” baggage with me, it just doesn’t weigh me down. While my deployment experience was pivotal, it does not define me or who I want to become. I crawl into the final postliminal stage with a renewed sense of self, wanting to help others find that renewal for themselves as well.
Stage 3: Postliminal Rite of Passage
After surviving the tumultuous transformation in stage two, we can move on to the final phase, which “allows the individual to adopt a new social status and re-enter society.6” The stages of liminality are reiterative, and have no time limits to them. The hero’s journey is not a long, continuous one, but a series of mini adventures, with triumphs and tragedies, each associated with their own cycle of liminal stages.
The freeing sensation I have moving across liminal spaces has healing powers, allowing me to forgive myself for previous (mis)perceptions and forgive others for theirs. Through this healing lens, I can help other people. My MBA experience at the Carlson School of Management has been a wonderful manifestation of liminality. Most of my friends came to the program seeking opportunities to pivot away from their past lives, unsure of what their future selves would look like.
I go into every MBA class hoping to be surprised. From Data Analysis, Supply Chain & Operations, to Strategic Management and Managerial Economics, I walk away as if I’m snapping out of a trance. The classrooms have become safe spaces where everyone’s liminal monsters come out to play. My thoughts and preconceived notions engage with my neighbors’, and through that exchange we are all able to traverse through different dimensions. In this exchange, I grow.
The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, opening up liminal spaces where uncomfortable conversations occur. The evolution of language accommodating previously marginalized members of society and the cultural clashes between race, class, and political ideologies is evidence of an outdated societal power structure struggling to keep hold over these liminal spaces. The formerly clear lines marking the wilderness where our monsters exist have become blurred. The monsters manifest themselves in anger and frustration, blasted on social media posts, throwing stones at our uniqueness, trying to keep us away from each other.
We are more than just our skin colors, our jobs, our sexual orientations, and our religious affiliations. Our “newly found selves” after liminal transformations will always be temporary. Walking through thresholds will never get easier and I can’t guarantee where you will end up. Thanks to my grandparents, I don’t let that fear hold me back. Embrace your differences, for there truly is strength in diversities of thought and action.
On days and in moments where I don’t want to raise my hand to ask a question, to humor my curiosity, because I want to be safe with the crowd, I think about my grandparents. I think about what I would tell them if they were still alive. I would say, thank you for encouraging me to break free from cultural shackles. To be me. And I don’t care about my safety.
- Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), 95, quoted in Harry Wels, Kees van der Waal, Andrew Spiegel, and Frans Kamsteeg, “Victor Turner and Liminality: An Introduction,” Anthropology Southern Africa 34, nos. 1 & 2 (2011): 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/23323256.2011.11500002.
- Trisha O’Connor, “Liminality: The Bond That Ties the Hero to the Monster,” accessed January 13, 2022, https://trishaoconnor.com/old-english/liminality-the-bond-that-ties-the-hero-to-the-monster/ .
- Cornel West, “Cornel West on state of race in the U.S.: ‘We’re in bad shape,’” interview by James Brown, 60 minutes, CBS News, March 20, 2016, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-cornel-west-on-race-in-the-u-s/.
- Sylwia Jaskulska and Adam Mickiewisz, “The Liminality of Adolescence: Becoming an Adult from the Point of View of the Theory of the Rite of Passage,” in 2nd International Conference on Education and Social Services Abstracts & Proceedings, ed. Uslu Ferit (Istanbul: International Organization Center of Academic Research, 2015), 96, http://www.ocerint.org//intcess15_e-publication/papers/101.pdf.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hanh,” interview by Oprah Winfrey, O, The Oprah Magazine, March, 2010, https://www.oprah.com/spirit/oprah-talks-to-thich-nhat-hanh/all.
- Keffrey Willet and Mary Jo Deegan, “Liminality and Disability: Rites of Passage and Community in Hypermodern Society,” Disabilities Studies Quarterly 21, No. 3 (2001): 138, https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v21i3.300.