Loving understanding. The esoteric view

By Heiner Prieß, January 2014

Imagine a solid anthroposophical basis. Standing on it are a teacher and a special-needs teacher. Back to back they stand, each looking in the opposite direction. This image illustrates two quotes from Rudolf Steiner’s educational lectures.

Picture: © Charlotte Fischer

In Study of Man, Steiner tells teachers: “Here in this human being you have to continue with your actions what higher beings did before birth.” In the Curative Education Course he says: “You are doing something that the gods otherwise do in the life between death and a new birth.” 

So, on the one hand, building on what happened before birth and, on the other, turning towards the life after death.

Looked at outwardly, exoterically, we have two divergent directions here. Seen inwardly, esoterically, the life before birth and after death occurs in the same spiritual world.

We can observe the continuation of the life before birth in small children. At the beginning they do not see the outward world at all. They do not, for example, notice the disability in a person because they perceive that person inwardly. It takes some time before they learn to look at the world from outside. In doing so, they lose what we might call their childlike, paradisiacal innocence. Their eyes are opened and with the development of differentiating and discriminating reason they acquire the judgemental look we all possess.

A further example of the natural continuation of the life before birth: the mother of a child with Down’s syndrome was asked in an interview how she reacted when she learned that she had given birth to a child with disabilities. She answered: “You know, when I was told ‘you have given birth to a child with Down’s syndrome’ the word ‘Down’s syndrome’ did not initially mean anything to me. He was simply my child.” The first thing the mother saw was her child. She was initially quite incapable of seeing him from the outside. She was still living completely in the pre-birthly,  intimate relationship which had arisen during pregnancy. From the perspective of the obstetrician and midwife, a misfortune had happened, a child with disabilities had been born and they did not know how to tell the mother.

How can I set aside my resistance?

There is a book about inclusion which is well worth reading. The author is Fredi Saal. He had spastic paralysis and throughout his life had to cope with being pitied as a case of misfortune. His book is called Why would I want to be someone else?. He writes: “There is good reason why it is so difficulty for both disabled groups” (with the one group he is referring to the physically disabled and with the other group to those with learning disability) “together to set up ‘sheltered workshops’. What resistance from people with physical disabilities had to be overcome. Thus we have to learn to understand both things – the resistance of the people without disabilities towards those who have disabilities and specifically the resistance of those with physical disabilities towards those with learning difficulties.”

The open look of a child, the loving look of a mother at her newborn baby and the look of the person with so-called learning difficulties as a rule does not contain such resistance, indeed, is not distanced in any way at all and by its nature inclusive. Their look still contains something of the life before birth. Reason is not involved.

By contrast, in my case the situation is like with Fredi Saal: with some people I first notice the bizarre movements or the conspicuous behaviour. Although I have been a special-needs teacher for a long time, I still possess the outward, exoteric way of looking at things. I experience my differentiating, distancing look as a disability when I want to perceive the human being but only see the external aspect.

Anthroposophy has helped me to change my outlook and transform part of my subjective sympathy into empathy. People in need of special care have also helped me to find and go along a path towards inwardness.

The person behind the appearance

Against this background, inclusion is just an empty programme to begin with. It has to be filled with life in order to become effective. I fill it with life when I learn to see the person himself or herself behind the physical appearance. I can practice that in the child conference if it is designed to follow a path from the outward observation of the child to an inward understanding of his or her destiny. An understanding which does not remain with me but acts in such a way that the child feels understood by me. The esoteric substance with which the inclusion programme can be filled is formed in such a transformation of understanding.

A loving understanding is the key. Birger Sellin, famous because of his autism, says about himself: “it’s rubbish to say that i’m a nutter without reason, i’m a nutter with reason which is even worse.” He, too, is of the opinion that his reason intensifies his disability.

A place where one is loved

After he left school, Birger Sellin was cared for in his own home for a number of years – wholly in the spirit of inclusion – but that became too expensive. He had to move to a residential home. He writes about the home: “this is the right place because nowhere am I better understood, I am also loved here.” The esoteric centre of inclusion is expressed in these words. It is a matter of finding the right place for each individual person if they themselves are not in a position to find the place in which they are understood and loved.

In the second lecture of the Pedagogical Youth Course Steiner says: “Waldorf education is not an educational system at all but an art for awakening what is contained in the human being ... First the teachers have to be woken up, then the teachers in turn have to awaken the children and young people.”

The inclusive potential of Waldorf education is asleep in us. It can be discovered and awoken through self-knowledge and developed through self-education.

About the author: Heiner Prieß was a teacher at the Rudolf  Steiner School for Children in Need of Special Care in Kiel for 25 years and a lecturer at the Rudolf Steiner Institute in Kassel.