Of Freedom and Courage in Liminal Spaces
Most people never have bobcat years. They marry too young to ever experience them. They travel from one home to another: the family home to the marital home, the first structured environment to the final. There may be waypoints in between—college, the semester abroad, the Peace Corps—but these phases, too, can be said to be structured. There’s a feel to them, like Fridays or Disney World. They have well defined characters—caricatures, even. These life-stages are symbolic in that mentions of them call to mind the constellation of notions and concepts associated with each of them; there may even be an element of cliché.
To participate fully in these phases of life is to inhabit the archetypes belonging to them. These archetypes are so comprehensive that we can entirely subsume our identities under them.
Archetypes are the pre-set options, the roles on offer, the normative crutches we’re able to lean on to belong, to be one of the tribe. For the sake of this essay, we’ll say that archetype is the instantiation of artifice and artifice is the deception itself.
Over time, common experiences become over-conceived. Their symbolism becomes louder than their purpose. Take a marriage. There is love, trust, companionship, alliance, support—what we’ll call the substance. Layered on top of that is the wedding, the flowers, the ring, the dress, the house, the family portrait on the Christmas card—what we’ll call the artifice. From the outside, substance and artifice could be indistinguishable since the artifice is indicative of the substance. But this could be the case on the inside, too, as we can deceive ourselves as easily as we can deceive others. The symbols are so strongly correlated with the substance that they become equally, if not more, important. And they’re actionable. Love and trust are hard, but rings and portraits can be bought. The danger of artifice is the danger of it being the goal instead of the dressing. The celebration without the win.
We reach for what is symbolically true because that is what is visible, achievable, plannable, direct. Symbols can be bought, arranged, controlled. Substance—which is often abstract, like love, inner peace, happiness, knowledge, depth, satisfaction—must be cultivated, built, earned, with no promise of success. The paths to these Goods are harder to design. There are no tried-and-true blueprints, no cheat codes, no manuals. The success or failure of the journey is partially out of your control as is much of the journey itself. Artifice is controllable and actionable but it is the scepter without the subjects.
In the best case, artifice elevates experience. In the common case, it obfuscates. In the worst case, it alienates. If life has ever felt viscerally absurd, if you’ve ever expressed, quietly or out loud, the feeling of wanting to get out of the system, if you’ve ever looked down at your legs and thought whose are these, if you’ve ever felt like a specter walking in parallel to your own life, a spectator in your own story, you may have had a brush with the alienation of artifice. You may have pushed your hand through the curtain and felt the man behind the wizard. You may have hit the proverbial Truman Show-wall.
Artifice is the fog of convention. It is the purest form of social construction. It is the coming of age ritual without the coming-of-age. It’s tanning in the West and whitening in the East. It’s signaling. It’s the inorganic social dynamics that inform the way we interact with each other and the world. It’s status. It’s the thing you feel lift off of you at a music festival. The mask you hadn’t realized you were wearing until you took it off. The water you hadn’t realized you were swimming in until you came up for air.
Youth can be artifice. There’s a commonly shared idea about what it means to be young: the power dynamic, the hierarchy, the restriction on freedom, the lack of responsibility. Nowhere is the selection-of-self more overt than in the category options available to an adolescent. These come fully stocked with pre-selected opinions, choices and styles—you can leave all the decisions to the archetype, if you’re so inclined. You can buy into the orthodoxy wholesale, which sets our young people up nicely to transition into partisan voters.
A professional life of one sort or another can be artifice. A readily available archetype exists for investment bankers, for example. A narrow band of options are available, of course, to give the illusion of agency: grey or blue suit, grey or dark blue Patagonia vest, several variations of the banker haircut (you know it when you see it), mint or virginia tobacco Juul, Gucci or Ferragamo loafers. Speech patterns, interests, values, etc. all follow similar patterns of false nuance. This can be ported over to other professions as well. We form expectations instantly when we think of a doctor, as another example. And just as importantly, we have preconceived ideas about what not to expect (subversion of the doctor archetype is perhaps why House was so compelling). Archetypes are as limiting as they are comforting.
The hipster aesthetic is artifice: a response to the sterility and alienation of a digital age. Reaching for the analog, the tangible. The axe-less lumberjack. The hammer-less builder. The farm-less farmer. Role playing. The instantiation of a thing without its context. The irony of reaching for the organic inorganically, the authentic inauthentically.
The “successful professional" is artifice. The Audi and the Submariner. The suit and the empty messenger bag. The bookshelf brimming with unread books. The piles of notebooks with empty pages save for some abstract scrawl on the first page of a few, arranged just so in piles, a pen perched on top, all in clear view of guests.
The “art collector”, whose art is abstract enough to impress but accessible enough not to challenge.
Young adulthood is interesting in that its artifice is nuanced. It is the clay from which the bobcat may be molded. It contains all the requisite frenetic energy but it is still sanctioned. It’s the only conventional phase of life where any meaningful degree of uncertainty is normal. It’s a time of open doors, of sampling, of soul-searching. Of switching majors, of internships, of dating. Of wandering, of questioning, of disillusionment. But the caveat is that, conventionally, it ends. A door must be walked through. A sample must be bought. A partner, a home, an illusion, chosen. The exact window of time is not stipulated, and it varies according to circumstance, but the passage of those months is felt in the bones and the closing of the window is ever on the horizon. Note that time in this period is spent in the overlapping shadows of the past and the future, where the shadow is darkest. Both past and future act causally on the present, one a push, one a pull. Conventionally, this era offers the freedom to explore but it is either token exploration or exploration explicitly as a means to decide how best to settle down. And what is lost in the settling down is time to live in the present, to sit in a moment without reference to a future one, to live for the sake of life.
There’s a liminal space that opens not always and not for all. A space with little context, that doesn’t exist in relation to anything else, where there are no bearings for one to regain. In that space, freedom bleeds in. In that space, its habitat rehabilitated, the bobcat roams.
Bobcats are more variable, wildcards by definition, jokers not belonging to any particular suit. They’ve always been but less is—and has been—said about them. They have less history, less story, less legend. They are Tuesdays: a day without a feel. They’re the after-hours hallways of a high school. They exist outside the typical, predictable social order. They have no definite beginning and no definite end. Some are orphaned at a young age. Some run away from home as youths. Some drop out of school as young adults. Some exit the workforce as adults. Some marry late or never marry. Some divorce their way into the species. The crucial point is that there are no expectations for you as a bobcat because the expectation is that it’s not a place you’ll hang your hat for very long. It’s a waystation. A middle ground. No-man’s land.
The only expectation of you as a bobcat is that, at an appropriate time, you cease being one.
Bobcats can be both happy and sad, both fearless and fearful. They may crave independence or shrink from the prospect of loneliness. And none of this is static: the happy become sad, and the sad, happy. There’s a wilderness in some of them, nearly by definition; they are, after all, outside. There’s something feral—not fierce or dangerous, just unsettled. A sensitivity. A brittle outer layer.
Just as there is a spectrum of artifice, there is a spectrum of wildness, atypicality, abnormality. Many are able to adjust. They cobble together pieces of disparate archetypes and fashion them into something unique. Some are fearless and unbothered: normal is what is normal to them: when I move I move like a man, for I am a man and this is my movement. These are perhaps rare.
For a great many others, though, there’s thunder and lightning and aimlessness. Self-doubt and anxiety. Elation and disillusionment. Charming conceit. But then there are flashes of purpose, flashes so bright that they brighten the past and the future, both. Suddenly the way is clear and the hands of the River Styx loosen their hold. After the flash, they’re suddenly neater, they take their vitamins, they do that thing that takes a minute but was left undone for weeks. And for some amount of time, they are satisfied.
None of this is said in judgment, on either side, in either direction. It’s only a word on the under-written legend of the bobcat, as well as a claim:
Something seeps into those who elude settlement, or whom settlement eludes. More for the former, surely, but what is it?
Life. Absurdity. Infinity.
Only it doesn’t seep so much as it torrents, it floods and it fills, changing their gaze, their voice, their stance and gait.
Bobcats are served a larger slice of Experience. Of infinity. They’ve scraped and cut themselves on the rough and sharp edges of life and, importantly, have developed a deep empathy as a result. And it’s true empathy, the kind that is compassionate even without understanding. They’ve seen more pain and felt more pain owing to their greater variety of experiences and their openness to be moved by them. They’ve seen, heard and experienced more sides to more stories and have broader perspectives as a result. But more importantly, having seen the merits of opposing views so often and having had their minds changed so often, they’ve gained the wisdom to understand the fickle nature of truth universally. They’ve seen how people’s opinions often coincide with their interests, with what is more comfortable, less challenging. They’ve seen the artifice of rhetoric, the use of bad faith to attempt to win rather than to find truth. They are slower to make up their minds and to pick a side. They lead with empathy instead, evaluating the best arguments from either side rather than the weakest.
Some engage in the masochistic cycle of meaningful relationships, wherein they gain insight into the psyche of others in exchange for quite a lot of pain and loss as every relationship in the “wild” eventually ends. This involves fearlessly entering into intimate relationships and exiting just as fearlessly. The refrain here, of course, is not settling. These romantic episodes are wonderful, enriching, enlightening, and ultimately excruciating as the bobcat walks away from perfectly wonderful partners who are nonetheless not the forever-ones. But what this cycle provides is an opportunity for the bobcat to understand more fully the nature of people other than themselves, to see the truth beneath the artifice, to uncover commonality, to mine the depths of humanity.
Bobcats are less compelled by artifice. They are uninterested in status, whether theirs or others’. Norms, expectations, and pretense are suspended, and they can act and speak more freely. They are less susceptible to groupthink. They see the world as it is and move through it as they choose. They have agency.
The bobcat years, if lived well, are years of exploration and enlightenment, years when ignorance wanes and empathy waxes. Bobcats must be fearless in the face of uncertainty in order to find their place under the Sun, to find their place among each other.
Just as we must reckon with the world, we must reckon with ourselves. And this path is not without perils.
We adopt norms instinctively. We inherit and absorb the thoughts, notions and opinions of our environments. Over time, we build something not unlike an artificial intelligence: a system of if/then algorithms that function as a sort of autopilot governing how we interact with the world. The implication is that those who are unexamined move with only partial agency. What are the chances our internal framework is optimized for our goals, for love, for happiness?
The bobcat years are years of disassembly, examination, validation of what works, rejection of what doesn’t, and deliberate reassembly—participation in the construction of ourselves.
It’s fraught, of course. The bobcat years are characterized by discomfort. Boldness is required of the bobcat, boldness to descend into this fever-valley of self exploration, to lay bare our choices and reasons. Our vanity and weakness.
To descend is to risk losing the safety of what archetypal models we have to hang on to. To descend is to risk breaking our if/then’s, short-circuiting our autopilot so that, for whatever time we spend in the valley, every decision is manual, every decision requires deliberation because every decision is self defining—a decision about the architecture of our souls. To descend is to risk digging down and finding nothing, following the causal chains of our reasons and finding no bedrock, arriving at the final turtle and finding nothing beneath it. To descend is to risk pulling ourselves apart and failing in the reassembly, either by creating something worse or else by leaving the pieces there on the floor. Boldness is required of the bobcat, boldness to descend into the fever-valley.
The valley is here wide and there narrow. You may walk in where the sides are shallow, you may roll down where the sides are steep or fall headlong where the cliffs are sheer. In the shadow of the valley, soft hands feel the rocky walls for some ledge, some foothold, grasping for purchase. Raging against everything and everyone. Yelling up at who you were, whispering to who you might become. You once walked through fields of sunflowers, deliberate and aimless, but in the valley, you only scramble. Leaping from rock to rock. Hurrying up the tallest trees but none are taller than the valley. You’re turned around so that you don’t know which side you came in on. One side feels familiar, comforting. The other, foreign. Harsh. But that one you must climb. It’s brutal, with few places to rest. But you soon feel the warmth of the sun again. On this side, the sunflower fields grow lower and you’ll never again wander haphazardly into the valley.
If you do not arrive whole, you were at least brave. If you do—and this is far too dramatic—you will have confronted and routed the artifice of your soul. You will perhaps be less compelled by the pushes and pulls of fear and desire. You can choose your paths with clear eyes.
Someday, you may find yourself walking out of the woods. Falling in love. Finding your life’s work.
Someday, you may find yourself back indoors. Building a home. Creating a life.
Someday, of your own accord, you may cease to be a bobcat.
And the partner and the child you hold in your arms will be, not symbols, but true forms.
It’s not lost on me that in the naming of the bobcat I am creating an archetype. I don’t know how to resolve this irony other than to say that I hope that those I would call bobcats will reject this title and this paper, and carry on with their full and free lives.