What's Your Spark?

Jeffrey Keefer


Photo by Michelangelo Buonarroti from Pexels

Questions that Invite Reflection Are Fraught with Opportunities and Challenges

I was recently invited to consider the question, "What's your spark?" and think this has the possibility of being a potentially transcendent starting point for the new year. Perhaps this is the sort of question that is always valuable to circle back to and ask, as there is never a wrong time to look within ourselves and seek to align our lives with our goals. This question has enormous creative opportunities and transformative potential all wrapped into one.

Awe-inspiring while potentially troubling all at once.

I have learned these sorts of introspections can be both optimistic and terrifying because they involve change, and change, in essence, requires awareness shifts that acknowledge our current identity is not as complete or full as we may want it to be. It reminds me of a university program I once started, where during the initial intensive, we were invited to draw pictures of our responses to various prompts.

Let's just say that at the time, I was a bit rigid in my thinking and drew only a straight line, as I could not make sense of what we were being asked to do. We were then paired up, and my partner, who I recall was very involved in advocacy and social justice organizing, thought I was obstructionist in my participation. In reality, the foundational work for the changes they were leading us toward was personally challenging for me, and at the time, I was at a loss to explain how I was feeling (beyond threatened at simple challenges to my then worldviews). The resulting changes in my perspectives over time were dramatic and beneficial, yet at the time, the challenges were . . . painful.

What's Your Spark?

When we face experiences that invite deep introspection, they always come with risk. The risk of not liking what we find is filled with opportunity, as well as challenge, as change always involves our moving to a new place, a new perspective, a new worldview, and a new shift in our status quo.

The potential for formulating an internal response is one aspect of this issue while acknowledging whatever comes up to ourselves can be hard enough, yet then sharing it publicly, whether with family, friends, colleagues, or even publicly (such as here), can be . . . significant.

Now, work with me here. The invitation itself is simple. Words on their own are simplistic. Thus, my answer can be simple — My spark is to seek the liminal.

Done. Easy. Basic.

So, are you convinced?

Do you even understand my response? Should you understand my response? To be fair, is it possible to understand my answer, on its own, without context, description, or more information? While I cannot read minds, my gut tells me this is not possible . . . something so personal and profoundly defining, defining even at this moment in time and experience, cannot stand alone without backstory and context in which to situate and scaffold it.

It is possible to give a simple answer, yet simple responses are not evident in themselves. How often have you heard people say, "Stop saying sorry! Those are just words!" Words are easy, yet the intention behind them, leading to the action ahead of them, is where our real opportunities await.

So, let me elaborate, and in the process, invite you to consider how you may reply to this. Who knows, it may have the potential for increasing reflection that leads to impactful change for good.

Seek the Liminal

Let's unpack what the words themselves mean and then spend a bit of time making sense of them in context. The purpose of this is ultimately to chart a path forward, though that will come later.

The concept of liminality comes from the anthropology literature. Now, anthropology is all about studying human behavior, especially within societies. While perhaps a cliche, think of Margaret Mead looking at cultural and gender norms in the South Pacific and what they mean for our own approaches to these notions. We, and by we I mean whatever group you have in mind when you are thinking about this, often have beliefs that are so internalized we tend to generalize them to others. In an age of social media and echo chambers, it can be easy to generalize that others around me feel the same about things as I do. Think about the current political situation in the U.S., the approach to COVID, and blame for whatever led to the situation you may believe about the former two. Anyway, I don't want to digress too far away from my intention to point out how some people try to study cultures and how people live within them without projecting their own ideas onto them.

It is within studying human behavior across cultures that some scientists noticed a recurring pattern, not in the particulars, but rather in the processes themselves. Many cultures have various ways of marking or celebrating rites of passage, when an individual changes from what they were and become something new--new in the eyes of their society and even themselves. Think about your own sense of what it means to graduate from college, become an adult, or somehow show the world you are no longer a kid. Most of these involve some sort of ritual, and while marriage, to take one example, may be done in different ways, society treats the new couple differently (or at least the government does with tax consequences!).

Scientists found that many rites of passage involve some disorientation experience that occurs in the middle of it. You know that stereotype of a spouse being left at the altar, with the other unable to go through with it? This is because the disorientation in the process was too strong. The rite of passage, involved too much.

The disorientation in the rite of passage, where there was that serious reflection about change and what that may mean--that is the essence of liminality. It is in this in-between place where a person is on the threshold of significant change when they are most alone with themselves and need to make sense of if and how they move forward, that is what liminality is all about.

So, when I said my spark is to seek the liminal, I mean that what drives me personally, professionally, socially, and spiritually is the commitment to unearthing those assumptions that often don't want to be found or changed and helping to move through them.

Chart a Path Forward

Seeking the liminal means acknowledging there is more to do, and it can only happen by passing through thresholds into places that are fundamentally new. Think how difficult it is to change beliefs, such as about race, gender, economic opportunity, or religion. We often have those personal beliefs that were unknowingly constructed, and about which we grew up believing they were normal, natural, right, and good.

Those are the sorts of unspoken systems that lead to many of the societal tensions we face, and the more dug in we find ourselves getting with the righteousness of our beliefs, the more challenging and potentially opportunistic the liminal space can be. To be fair, if you are assuming I am one on or another side of a political landscape, you may be wrong, as I believe that extremes in any way can benefit from liminal experiences, as extremes are intentionally out of balance (and discussing balance is something for another day).

I will leave you with this--take any issue you are completely committed to, one you believe with the core of your being. Now try to consider somebody with the exact opposite perspective. Imagine the sort of liminal experience they may encounter to have a glimpse into your perspective.

Want to really affect positive change? Envision your own liminal possibilities to meet them half way. That is the essence of change, a change that unearths deeply-held assumptions and expands them to be more "inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change" (Dirkx, Mezirow, & Cranton, 2006).

I ask you, how can wanting this not be a spark for us?

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY

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