JITSKE KRAMER & Tricky Times: the messy middle of change

In Tricky Times, Jitske Kramer unravels the complexities of transformations and cultural change.

We are in a period of transition. As with any major change, we have to let go of what is familiar without knowing exactly what the future holds. This is a confusing betwixt-and-between time, when things are neither what they were, nor what they will become. Anthropologists call such between-times liminality.

Fascinated by the myriad changes impacting our world and universally fierce emotions they are arousing, best-selling Dutch author and anthropologist Jitske Kramer set out to unravel the patterns of this liminal time. In clear language she describes the opportunities, the dangers and the lures during major changes. When wild stories confound, tricksters continually toy with truth and power relations shift.

We are lost in a trickster culture. We hail the best spinners of truth as heroes and now have Jack Sparrows as CEOs and Pinocchios as political leaders.

Tricky Times is an unsettling keynote talk that will have you seeing society, and yourself, with fresh eyes. A talk of insightful interpretations and personal views. Sharing lessons Jitske learned on her travels in diverse cultures. Offering a vision on the kind of leadership needed in liminal times. And an urgent talk, because we can and must do better. We have work to do.

Navigating through uncertain times is a tricky business. It takes fearlessness and faith.

Taking the knowledge and tools of anthropology, this keynote delves into the patterns and dynamics of major change. Anthropology has the ability to illuminate and lay bare things we knew but could not yet put into words. In Tricky Times, Jitske Kramer unravels the complexities of cultural change. Focusing particularly on what happens in the uncomfortable, turbulent, precarious and messy middle—when we know we cannot go back to how things were, but also can’t yet clearly picture what’s to come.

The messy middle: opportunities, dangers and lures during liminality

This keynote follows Jitske Kramer’s quest as she dives into the power of liminal times. Liminality offers untold opportunities. The temporary loosening of social structures and hierarchies makes it easier to look past biases and analyse situations as they are. It opens up space for self-exploration, to let emotions flow freely and to shape new realities. When we traverse a liminal space with others, it forges a special bond and a profound, at times spiritual, kinship. Shared liminality kindles a sense of community, of communitas. It puts us in touch with nature, with place and time. But, to experience and tap into these positive dimensions, we also have to navigate through and past the risks of liminality. Risks in the form of temptations that threaten to derail the needed transformation. This talk takes the audience through each of these risks. The seven main dangers and lures of liminality, which are at the heart of Jitske’s quest, are outlined below.

The first is the danger of permanent liminality. This is where we fail to press on to the integration stage, put off taking decisions and never act on ideas, and so end up hovering at the threshold, neither here nor there. We know we ought to change, but don’t. New initiatives are just variations on the old. Carving out a new identity proves impossible. We try to blunt or buffer the pain and emptiness we feel, instead of rooting it out and resolving it, leaving underlying problems to fester. We may even blame our state of affairs on each other, making conflicts boil over and thwarting any form of reconciliation. Street demonstrations grow endemic, border conflicts keep on claiming lives, divorces inflict years of agony and, try as you might, you cannot get past the death of a loved one. Resolution, completion, closure: these things are essential.

The second danger is the lure of pseudo-liminal activities. Instead of genuinely transformative rituals, we go for the rush of the electrifying experience without the pain that comes with real change. Modern societies often lack the clear group rituals that build ties and guide transitions. Often, we don’t take the time to delve deeper, preferring to sidestep the discomfort of change. We prefer things to be fun and inspirational. This leaves us with activities that offer the thrill of a liminal experience but fall short of transformation. These kinds of liminoid activities keep us dangling, like experience junkies, in a state of permanent liminality.

Third is the danger of wild stories. Faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, we are tempted to believe the most outlandish stories, explanations and solutions. There is a real danger when people flood social media with crazy messages that pit camps against each other. New divisions gain purchase more easily during liminality, and if we don’t know the exact story, we make one up. If everyone around you is in panic mode, your body is swift to react. Much as we like to think we direct our own thoughts and behaviour, that’s not entirely true. Emotions, behaviours and narratives are contagious. We copy what others do far more than our ideal selves would care to admit. But during liminality our usual points of orientation are thrown into doubt, leaving us unsure just who or what to trust and emulate. In extraordinary times we are open to extraordinary stories, even if they are beyond belief. We can’t help it. Storytelling is what makes us human.

The fourth is the danger of tricksters who seduce us with pretty words and fixes that are too good to be true. We are always susceptible, but much more so in liminal times. Tricksters are both wonderful and despicable. They twist boundaries, juggle facts and fictions, and so craft new realities. Sometimes, with disastrous effects. They lure us with the promise of privileged knowledge. They pin blame on everyone but themselves and scheme to make others take the fall when things go wrong. Tricksters are seducers, charlatans or villains who defy you to stick to your own moral compass. We all have trickster tactics of our own and can often tell when others are using them. Tricksters push through boundaries and tread on hallowed ground. Everything the trickster does is out of bounds and against the rules, yet by tearing things and people apart, they also clear spaces for new situations and fresh possibilities. Take Robin Hood. Hero or thug? Tricksters force us to think hard about our moral compass. They are brilliantly creative and essential for change, but, with too many of them, things get stuck. This is a problem we are seeing in many places. We have come to confuse trickster logic and tactics with leadership competences, drawing tricksters from the fringes into the very centre of power. And that is getting us into big trouble.

Fifth is the danger of a fierce, even violent, power struggle. Because: who gets to shape the new narrative, who pays the highest financial price of change, and who profits? Transformation calls for bold leadership. It calls for decisions that go beyond personal interests. Fundamental changes always bring about shifts in power and reshuffle rankings. While it is tempting to cling to what’s familiar, if the status quo becomes untenable or unpalatable for enough people, it can lead to frustration, friction and, potentially, aggression. For there to be a peaceful transition to a new situation, those in charge have to be willing to change, too. Actively, but also by stepping down from or sharing power, rank and privilege. Which is awfully hard for people to do.

Sixth is the danger of a lack of safety and courage. The blurring of boundaries in the liminal space creates more room for everything, also for the darker side of human nature. People may do things they would normally never dare to. Brilliantly innovative things, but also transgressive behaviours such as verbal abuse, physical aggression and substance overuse. Alternatively, people may be seized with indecision and apathetically wait for others to act. We need individuals who can create and hold spaces so we don’t feel fearful to explore our boundaries. Particularly because we tend to be lousy communicators. Innovation hinges on people sharing ideas, even and especially if those ideas cause sparks to fly. Interaction and decision- making are how humans build cultures, but all the liminal emotions churning around are hampering our ability to do that now, just when it matters most.

The seventh danger is time. Or rather, the lack of it. We like things to be set in stone straight away and feel pressured to quickly hammer out solid plans, to know the end goal from the outset, and often lack the guts to leave room to let some magic in. It’s much harder to have faith that new paths will present themselves to you along the way. Not by waiting around for lightening to strike, but by keeping your eyes open, meeting new people, experimenting with new options, asking and listening deeply. The challenge for our modern cultures is to let ourselves be liminal. To feel our emotions and to tap our imaginations. To create and to craft things into existence. And to have the courage to tune into our own magical powers.

Finding our way out of the maze: lost but not forsaken

When faced with major changes in the world, we have to rethink old ways and question established truths. That can leave us floundering amid all the possibilities of our own cultural narrative, stirring existential fears. Unique as this experience feels while it’s happening, we humans know how to tackle big transformations. We’ve done it before. The universal patterns of liminality can help us tread through this messy middle of change. There is much we can learn from what we already know.

Tricky Times gives the insights needed for navigating liminal space. Not a step-by-step roadmap with concrete tips for reaching your destination, but pointers for choosing a direction in situations where the landscape keeps changing and you feel lost between how things were, are and should or could be.

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Tricky Times

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