Most of us have danced the “Limbo Rock” in which you bend over backward to music and pass under a pole which is lowered slightly each time. Although originating in the W. Indies (African), this has been played all around the world; “every limbo boy and girl!”
The concept of ‘limbo’ was not always that much fun though. The word itself is derived from Latin limbus, border, and referred to the edge of Hell. Old Medieval and Catholic traditions referred to Limbo as “an abode of souls excluded from Heaven but not condemned to further punishment.” Today, ‘limbo’ can be any state or condition of prolonged uncertainty or neglect and where it seems nothing can be done until another action happens.
In that sense, we have all been in limbo. A permit being held up in regulatory bureaucracy. An ex-lover who keeps you hanging on. The diagnosis awaiting the pathologist’s interpretation of a biopsy. A court ruling that leaves one without recourse. A computer file that has been deleted but which can still be restored. Limbo is what even happens when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question.
My father, now 96 years old, and who lived a virtuous and healthy life and perhaps because he lived such a life, now sits in limbo wondering what to die of. His mind is frail now and he can’t read the obituaries anymore; but when he could, he always wondered why people died alphabetically.
Unexpected deaths are good at leaving you in limbo. When my wife passed away now eleven years ago, I felt ‘frozen.’ I would have been physically immobile if not for dear family and friends to push me through the motions of bereavement. At first unable to work, I returned with a vengeance: a workaholic with only three months of sobriety! This was to take its toll five years later with a complete nervous breakdown leaving me in an emotional limbo; a state I would have been stuck in without the love and support of family: a limbo lock!
Like Odysseus, we sometimes have to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, to navigate between the devil and the deep blue sea. Awaiting safe passage, we get stuck between a rock and a hard place. We literally get torn psychologically when we have to decide between choices that are equally good; or bad. And so one has to rely on their true north, i.e. their personal values, as hard decisions are hardly driven by statistics or objective data alone.
Being in limbo is different than being in the purgatory of procrastination. In the former, there are factors beyond your control that force you to sit tight; while the latter is an active delaying or postponing on your part. It is said that the only good thing about procrastination is that you will still have something to do tomorrow!
Frank Portnoy however argues in his book, “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay,” that procrastination can be a good counter-balance to culture’s obsession with efficiency, speediness and productivity. He believes that it can actually be a tool to prioritize, learn about yourself, and, in the process, make more creative choices.
The important thing is to make sure you are not just being lazy. We know from physics that objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless an external force is applied to it. As Sir Isaac Newton observed, we are a lot like falling apples!
It is simple to overcome inertia: just get started. This is easily done for the everyday things like washing dishes, doing laundry, or clearing your desk. David Allen says in his book, “Getting Things Done,” that if a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then do it right now!
And even for bigger projects, just get started! Writing a book? Start with a sentence. Want to eat healthy? Consume a fruit or vegetable now. Want to be a good dancer? Book a lesson. Want to start jogging: Step out of the door with your running shoes. Want to start a yoga practice? Just go to a studio and enroll in your first class. As the Nike ads say, “Just Do It!” Remember that clarity comes from doing, not from thought. You only know what a world is like when you are in that world.
So, what are you waiting for? Go and do already. “Jack be limbo, Jack be quick. Jack go under the limbo stick!”