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I learned a new word over the disorienting pause that now passes for a weekend.
Liminality describes the space between two states of being. In anthropology, it is the middle stage of a rite of passage—you’re no longer exactly who you were, but you’re not yet what you’re going to become. Societies explicitly mark the big ones—birth, puberty, marriage, death—with ceremonies.
But being stuck in the middle is confusing stuff.
It was folklorist and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) who first observed the power in rites of passage, a chance for humans to wrap their arms around moments of transition and great uncertainty—and in some cases, process the loss of what was and embrace the promise that has not yet been realized.
While the rituals may differ, he believed the awareness of the liminal to be universal.
“These are the constants of social life, to which have been added particular and temporary events such as pregnancy, illnesses, dangers, journeys, etc.,” he wrote in The Rites of Passage, published posthumously in English in 1960. “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross.”
This point of view helps makes some sense of corona-denialism, and offers some emotional context to the deep anguish people are experiencing over real-world cancelled events like funerals and end-of-school trips and proms, or now-virtual events—graduations, weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, and baptisms. Even small daily rites, like coffee talks after staff meetings or pre-happy hour make-up refreshes, are sorely missed.
As I was turning myself into an amateur anthropologist this weekend, it occurred to me that the leaders who will emerge as powerful voices during this difficult time will speak to the liminal tension we’re all feeling, and acknowledge that most of us will be in a new place when this is all over.
That’s one of the many things that hit my ear when I watched Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson’s video message to employees, posted to the Marriott International Twitter account last Thursday. It was remarkable for many reasons.
Like many chief executives, the company he runs is now in a tough spot. So, he went there.
In the video simply titled, “A Message from Arne,” he begins with the truth. “This is the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together,” he says. The 92-year-old company has seen many things, but “COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than September 11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.”
Sorenson, who had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, is bald now. He said that his team was concerned that his new appearance would alarm people. “Let me just say new look was exactly what was expected as a result of my medical treatments,” he says, owning the liminal truth.
He begins by acknowledging anyone dealing with coronavirus as a patient, parent, family member, or friend, before he addresses the reality of their shared situation.
The company is in the thick of the middle of the bad news. With hotels shuttered and employees and travelers quarantined, their share price is currently down more than 50% from its February 2020 high of $150. In most markets, business is running 75% below normal levels, he said, and there will be more global hotel closings and/or service reductions to come.
Sorenson announced that he is suspending his own salary and that of Executive Chairman Bill Marriott for the rest of 2020; salaries of senior executives will be reduced by 50%. Temporary 60-90-day furloughs for many employees will begin immediately, along with other cost-cutting measures.
While the current news is grim, his message was not: Plain-spoken, honest, transparent, detailed, tone-appropriate, and empathetic—all the things that help people feel less out of control.
Listening to it again, Sorenson’s message was clearly an example of authentic leadership. But it also felt as if he fully understood that we are collectively in the middle of a vast transition, a painful place to be with no ritual playbook to guide the way. He ended by holding space for the new, and perhaps more grateful, world that we are poised to become.
“I know that we as a global community will come through to the other side, and when we do, our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again,” he said, visibly emotional. “When that great day comes, we will be there to welcome them, with the warmth and care we are known for the world over.”
Below we are focusing on some examples of great leadership, some big, some small, from people who peered into the liminal abyss and took a stand.
What are you seeing in your world? Hit us back and we’ll amplify.
Coronavirus hits Rikers and other NYC jails Of course, this is just the beginning, and the prospects for mass infection are terrifying. This weekend, the board that supervises the jail system called for low-level offenders and vulnerable populations to be released. “Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ health care system as well its basic operations,” said Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman, as reported by the Associated Press. Ahead of the effort to flatten this particular curve was Rachael Bedard the senior director of the geriatrics and complex-care service at Rikers—let that job description sink in a second—who took to Twitter in the middle of last week to sound the alarm. “We need to take the unprecedented step TODAY of providing urgent release to everyone in the jails who is at risk of serious morbidity and mortality from COVID,” she wrote in a Twitter thread that will break your heart. Despite coronavirus-like symptoms of her own, she spoke to The New Yorker about life at the prison, see below.
The New Yorker
DJ D-Nice threw a digital dance party and the world showed up The Bronx-born Derrick Jones is also rapper, producer, and photographer, but his Homeschoolin’: Social Distancing Dance Party series on Instagram Live has become a master class in how to spread collective joy from a safe distance. Now that big cities are on actual lockdown, the series is even more important, says Justin Tinsely in The Undefeated. “Homeschoolin’ took on a form of musical therapy sessions for a community needing mental and spiritual restoration for more than 100,000 viewers,” he writes. A-listers like Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oprah, and Michelle Obama all joined the fun, but that’s not even the point, says Tinsley. He links D-Nice's ability to create a brilliant soundtrack to other Black truthtellers, like Nina Simone, Joe Louis, even Medgar Evers.“[W]hat they have in common is the ability to rally black folks during unprecedented times.”
The weekend box office was zero for the first time ever. Now what? The Hollywood Reporter is in new territory. Pamela McClintock, who covers weekend receipts and analyzes the data for the industry, is still in shock. “I can't possibly count the number of times those of us on perpetual box office duty have commiserated about how nice it would be to have a break,” she says. Now, the movie business has gone from full steam to no revenue in a snap worthy of Thanos. In anticipation of the human cost of the pandemic, Netflix has created a $100 million fund to support cast and crew who are out of work due to production shutdowns around the world. (Virtual hug to all the Stranger Things fans out there.) Expect hourly wage-earners to get relief first, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in a blog post. “We’re in the process of working out exactly what this means, production by production. This is in addition to the two weeks pay we’ve already committed to the crew and cast on productions we were forced to suspend last week.”
Italian mayors are furious An online creator named Max Robespierre has posted a compilation video of various Italian mayors authentically losing their minds at the thought that anyone would dare defy the quarantine order. They are NOT HERE FOR IT. “I’m getting news that some of you would like to throw graduation parties,” says one, calmly. “We will send over the police. With flamethrowers.” Another just can’t even. “I’m going to address you all,” says one mayor, speaking from behind his official mayoral desk. “Where the fuck are you all going? You and your dogs? Which MUST have an inflamed prostate?” Stai al sicuro, resta a casa, e rendi felice il sindaco!
Lagos-based film director Niyi Akinmolayan is translating coronavirus PSAs into Nigerian languages The founder of Anthill Productions, a multimedia facility and animation studio, was worried that most of the safety information had been produced mostly in “big English,” he says. So he created four different videos in (Nigerian) Pidgin, Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa, then made audio versions (complete with script) for anyone who wanted to air them on the radio, or create their own. The Google drive he shared was immediately overrun. “So the Google drive is overloaded with too many downloads. That means u are all sharing!! So I have created a wetransfer link with the 4 videos,” he tweeted. Akinmolayan was the director of the hit feature film The Wedding Party: Destination Dubai, which broke Nollywood box office records across Africa and the U.K.
Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.
"Each of us has great potential to balance the cruelty in the world with kindness—within our capacity. And if we nourish our spirit every day and we can nourish our heart, we’re reminded of whatever we are able to change, not what we are incapable of changing. If we change ourselves, it can affect everyone who comes into contact with us. What I didn’t know in my twenties, but am certain of now, is that there’s lots of miseria in the world, but there’s also so much humanity…You need to consider the daily choices you make to create or destroy with every single act, whether it’s in words or in thoughts. The older I get, the more I’m conscious of ways very small things can make a change in the world. Tiny little things, but the world is made up of tiny matters, isn’t it?”
—Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, in an interview with AARP Magazine.