COVID-19 and our existential crisis

By Torin M. Finser

Looking outside at 7:30 each morning, I no longer see the yellow school bus that has appeared regularly for years and years. All local gatherings are cancelled, and many local stores have sold out on basic products. Thanks to various news outlets, we see images of Rome, Madrid and other cities around the world totally deserted.

More than a “news event”, this is an existential crisis that begs a larger question: what is going on?

Waldorf (Steiner) high school students are taught to look beyond the presented information, and practice symptomatology. The human spirit yearns for understanding that goes beyond what is incessantly presented in the news; we are in search of meaning as never before.

The Abyss of Nothingness

Already over the past year, I have observed that many of the old supports are being taken away from us. Waldorf traditions are questioned as never before, finances are stretched to the breaking point in many schools, and basic social norms seem to be eroding. Now in our corona-crisis we see stark images of what has been creeping up on us for some time: an experience of nothingness. The past is being stripped away, and we stand alone as never before. This presents a new necessity: We are at a point in evolution where the “old” can no longer continue, and now everything will depend on our own efforts as single human beings. We now need to create out of Nothingness. That which I have been given is no longer sufficient; I need to create out of myself as never before.

Social Justice and a New Order

Last September, Waldorf Today published my article on The Future of Waldorf Education: Beyond 100. A major theme was the need for critical self-assessment of established practices and the need to change our ways in order to thrive in the years going forward. Waldorf schools have often lived in a kind of protective bubble, sustained by enthusiastic parent support, dedicated teachers/staff, generous donors, and minimal interference from the outside. Our independent and public Waldorf schools have nurtured many, many happy children, and our graduates have demonstrated the many benefits of their Waldorf education (see the new Waldorf publication Into the World, How Waldorf Graduates Fare After High School) Although societal challenges have grown each year, something different is happening in this year of the 100th anniversary. The paradigm has shifted.

You must NOT look on everything as determined, rather it depends on whether or not we allow our actions to be guided by the laws of justice and fairness. New things are constantly being added to our morality, to the way we do our duty and to our moral judgment.” (Rudolf Steiner, June 17, 1909)

The present experience of the abyss of nothingness is a jolt to redirect our inner compass, change our daily routines and reclaim our Waldorf roots in social justice. Change is no longer an option; it is a necessity.

Social Distancing

Schools are all about community. For years, the neighborhood school has been the hub of cultural life, student dramatic productions, festivals, and more. Now we are being asked to practice social distancing. Is this just a blip in time, or can we again use symptomatology? Dis-tancing, dis-location, dis-establishment…all begin with the Latin prefix meaning apart, and bring up other words that speak so strongly in today’s environment: disbelief, discontent, dishearten, disown, discord (Dante referred to the deepest layers of hell as the City of ‘Dis’). Long before our current manifestation of social distancing, we experienced dis-association with traditional leadership roles, with each other and even with the facts.

In so many realms we no longer know where we stand. At times it seems we all need to go back to first grade and learn again what it means to share, listen to others, play by the same rules, in short, to be decent and respectful. The social distancing of COVID-19 asks us all: can we address the soul condition of isolation and disconnection, and how do we want to work together? Deeper down are questions concerning the very nature of the human encounter.

De-institutionalizing Schools

Ivan Illich spoke eloquently about deschooling, and how the institution of “school” encourages conformity: answering the questions in a way that pleases the teacher, lining up in the hall, and so on. Paulo Freire pushed the discussion even further in strenuously arguing that institutions such as schools serve to perpetuate pedagogy of oppression. Those “in control” of social norms, finances, designing standardized tests, etc. have long found ways to make the institution of schools/colleges serve their ends. Those practicing homeschooling have long been part of a larger deschooling movement. Now schools are closed for weeks, perhaps months. What does this mean?

Death can lead to spirit rebirth. Institutions are in themselves always dying, and stay alive only because of the people within them. But one senses that the present time is calling for more radical change. Perhaps we need to re-orient ourselves more around activities that bring life, and focus less on perpetuating the institutional aspects of buildings and budgets.

In the early days of Antioch New England (1960s), students would gather in a large room and the professors would ask: what do you want to learn this semester? Which courses should we offer? Of course, this was before accreditation and federal student loan requirements. Do we dare entertain the conversation: ‘What sort of a school do we want to have next year?’ It’s not easy to facilitate such a conversation (and we risk utter chaos), but perhaps we need to develop a new perspective, that budgets and programs need to follow real needs and interests, and not just serve to perpetuate what has been done in the past.

Fear and the Spiritual Journey

FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President, 1933-1945) will always be remembered for “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He lifted us up as a nation by articulating what so many were feeling, and gave us hope through his example of personal suffering and perseverance. Fear is a symptom of our time. Loss of confidence in our leaders, misguided trust, and unknown medical situations today prompt irrational behaviors, sleeplessness and social tensions.

Many spiritual traditions, including most major world religions, have practices of atonement or preparation for high festivals. Fasting for Ramadan, the period of Lent, and preparing for Yom Kippur call upon participants to change their ways and forego ordinary comforts and habits. Spirit comes before matter. We are being asked today to reaffirm our spiritual roots and put limitations on our desires for material things. We are approaching an unprecedented existential state. We are staring into the abyss: nothingness, dis-connection, dis-establishment of institutions, fear and dread of the unknown.

Out of this moment can come a new sense of freedom. We can choose how we want to relate, what we value in life, and how we want to support educational activities. Our existential crisis is pregnant with potential, if we are awake at this turning point in time. Yes, we all long for a return to some semblance of normality. For me, it is my vocation as a teacher. I look forward to July and teaching a Renewal course on The Human Encounter, a research course for experienced professionals in our Transdisciplinary Healing Ed Program, and welcoming students beginning teacher education whose destiny path has led them to Waldorf education.

I hope we can all go through this dark night of the soul and emerge stronger in spirit. As in Narnia, a stone table that is cracked can lead to transformation because there is “deep magic” in all things human. Death can bring new life.

The Stone Table at C.S. Lewis Square in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Torin M. Finser, PhD, has served Waldorf education for more than forty years, first as a class teacher, then as Director of Waldorf Teacher Education at Antioch University New England, and later as chair of the education department. A former General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, he also helped found the Center for Anthroposophy in New Hampshire. His research and writings have reached people all over the world, with several books now translated into multiple languages. Torin has served as a consultant, workshop leader, and keynote speaker at numerous conferences. He is married to Karine, has six children, and is now also a very happy grandfather!

You can contact Torin at tfinser@antioch.edu

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