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Domini Clark is an editor at The Globe and Mail.
The cold, dark days of January often herald a season of gloom for myself and others, but this winter the depression seems particularly acute. And the theme of it is different from years past. There’s the general misery of the prolonged pandemic, obviously, but never in my life have I seen so many women struggling (at least so openly) with their identity – with the very essence of who they are. As my mother wrote to me in an e-mail, “I looked in the mirror last night and wondered, ‘Who is this person?’”
I see posts about the issue on my social media feeds, hear about it on podcasts and talk about it with friends. This anxiety has been building for months, and now many of us have reached a breaking point.
We all have something in common: we’ve undergone at least one tremendous personal change in the past two years. Something specific to us, not just the world. Whether it be a career switch, a new relationship or becoming a mother for the first time, some major part of our life is fundamentally different.
Of course, such shifts have always happened, and traditionally they have been celebrated, not seen as cause for anxiety. But therein, I’m starting to believe, lies the reason for this angst. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, many of us have not been able to have baby showers, housewarmings or weddings. (According to a February 2021 study by TD, more than half of engaged Canadian couples have either postponed or downsized their weddings.) We haven’t officially introduced our new partners to friends, or toasted our successes at celebratory dinners.
And while I never was one to make much fuss about such things, it’s become clear to me that these occasions serve a real purpose.
The phrase “rites of passage” was coined by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in the early 1900s. Throughout our life, he posited, we move between groups, leaving one to join another. These social transitions occur in three stages: separation (exiting the old), liminal (experiencing the in-between) and incorporation (belonging to the new). Initiation rites and cultural rituals – such as parties and celebrations – help us mark a successful completion.
No wonder many of us are feeling lost. I’m not a psychologist, but the idea that we are, to our detriment, stuck in the liminal state – in a sort of identity limbo – makes sense.
The experts agree. Not being able to fully process these landmark events can have harmful effects on our mental health.
Rituals that mark major milestones “play a key role in shaping what we call our narrative self, the sense of who we are and how we came to be that person,” Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, told the Atlantic. “For many people, the lack of ceremony is experienced as a feeling of emptiness, as if their very life narrative had a gap in it.”
My pandemic-caused gap should have been filled with friends meeting my new man (most haven’t), a goodbye party, a housewarming and more. Instead I am left with a chasm too big to leap over, and so I remain straddling it, trying to balance with one foot on either side. No wonder I am anxious and exhausted.
According to Victor Turner, the British cultural anthropologist who expanded on van Gennep’s rites of passage theory, this position is not sustainable. He believed “liminality must eventually dissolve,” Peter Homans writes, “for it is a state of great intensity that cannot exist very long without some sort of structure to stabilize it.”
Obviously Turner did not live in the time of constantly changing COVID-19 restrictions that have destroyed much of the structure that previously held our lives together.
In tandem with embracing a new life, we must, of course, say goodbye to an old one. Mother, wife, girlfriend – these are all identities that, although we may try to deny it, force a woman to relinquish part of herself. Being excited and happy about such a transition doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
“Rituals help us mark time and organize meaning around change,” psychoanalyst Juliane Maxwald told CNN. “The process of change involves both grieving loss and embracing growth.”
Here, too, social rituals play a key role. By “turning events into something special and meaningful,” as social psychologist Shira Gabriel tells Greater Good Magazine, it becomes easier to let go of the old identity.
So we have been denied another useful tool to help us rebuild ourselves. We cannot properly celebrate, nor adequately grieve.
And, sadly, we cannot turn back time (if we could, someone would definitely have fixed this timeline by now). How then do we escape this liminal limbo? I think it’s time we each create a new ritual that allows us to move on, to say farewell to our former lives. When I had to sell my first house, which I didn’t want to leave, my real-estate agent gave me this advice: “When you do your final walk-through, say goodbye to every room.” And so I did. I was still a blubbering mess, but it helped.
I don’t yet know what my personal ceremony will look like. But if you happen to see me covered in dirt screaming under a full moon, don’t be alarmed. And feel free to join in.
What else we are thinking about:
I’ve decided this is my Winter of the Beach Read. It happened by accident, as I was making my way through my book stack and People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry was next in line. While at first all the talk of sand, surf and sun gave me major FOMO, I’ve since come to realize it’s actually the perfect tonic for these dreary days. Although I’m still insanely jealous of the fun the main characters are having.
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