I was eating alone at the lunch counter of the local restaurant recently. I make a habit of going alone at least once weekly so that I can be left with my thoughts and not find myself entrenched in small talk or talking business. The lunch itself, was okay, your typical blue plate, meat and two veggies, sort of fare. The conversation I overheard, on the other hand, was refreshing.
There were two gentlemen seated across the restaurant from me, but since it is a U-Shaped counter service establishment, I could not help but to be drawn into their conversation—hopefully unbeknownst to them. Given how he was dressed, you could tell one man was a businessman—a banker or lawyer, perhaps. The other, slightly older man, looked to be retired or a farmer—hard to tell with overalls!
The conversation went something like this:
Farmer: What you thankin about the upcoming ‘lection?
Businessman: You know they say you should never talk politics or religion.
Farmer (clearly unphased): Ok. So what you thankin about the upcoming ‘lection?
Businessman: It’s a tough one to weigh in on.
Farmer: How do ya figure?
Businessman: Well, it seems as if I am darned if I go one way and double darned if I go another.
Farmer: I’m guessin you’re talking about the race for president?
Businessman: Yes sir, that’s the most consequential race going on right now.
Farmer (must have been a journalist in a past life): Ok. So what you thankin about the upcoming ‘lection?
Businessman: You’re as persistent as my ex-wife.
Both men chuckle.
Businessman: I’m going to be honest with you, I like what the economy is doing to my investments and for my retirement fund. Even COVID-19 slowed us down a bit, I read yesterday where a million new jobs had been created. I like the outcomes, but I don’t necessarily like what it takes to get there.
Farmer: You talkin’ bout Trump?
Businessman: Yes sir. On the one hand, I feel like the left has gone way left and, on the other, the right has gone way right. It is like folks like me have been left out of the conversation and no longer have a political party to call home.
Farmer: That’s something, huh?
Honestly, I’m not quite sure how the conversation went from there because, at that moment, I was lost in my own thoughts…well, really lost in their thoughts and trying to process them.
This idea of being in ‘no man’s land’ is not a new one… I was talking with a friend and she shared with me that her small group was studying the concept of liminality and Bonhoeffer. I may have lost you there, but hang on…
Liminality is a state of being between two worlds, in which a person “becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification,” according to anthropologist Victor Turner (Turner 232). So ‘no man’s land’ is really the best descriptor.
Liminality is a concept that is not foreign to us. In fact, I believe the word is interchangeable with adolescence! If you remember back how awkward being a tween and then a teen-but-not-yet-adult was…
Perhaps Bonhoeffer, a theologian, himself is the best one to address this concern because he lived the end of his life in prison, on the threshold between two worlds and two ways of understanding himself: as the one others saw, poised and confident, and the one he knew himself to be, unsure and weary. His famous poem, “Who Am I?” gives voice to his own state of liminality. The poem begins by asking
Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.
Later in the poem Bonhoeffer gives his own assessment:
Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
I may be stretching by intertwining the mortal with the eternal, the vile with the chaste, but the concept and the poem resounded within my being.
Recall the scene from Alice in Wonderland where Alice reaches a crossroads where the Cheshire cat is sitting. Alice asks the cat: "Which road should I take?" In reply, the cat says: "Where are you going?" To that, Alice says: "I don't know." "Then it doesn't matter which road you take," the cat says in response.
It would seem as evidenced by the conversation of the gentlemen, and that from others, that we have reached a point of political liminality in the United States. I suspect that there are many more men and women finding themselves in a political identity crisis. I keep thinking to myself, surely, there are more people in the middle than at the fringes of this ideological spectrum. Certainly, part of this can be attributed to the sensationalism of everything by the news media, but I think there’s a part of it that each of us must own, too.
Some of the most powerful words known to mankind are that of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” These folks, for which we cast our votes, are supposed to represent us, our ideals, our hopes, our dreams. If they do not, then we have a duty to search out those who do and get them into office.
So, in the words of my unknown farmer friend, “Ok. So what you thankin about the upcoming ‘lection?” As for me, I’ll take the “red, white, and blue plate special.”