Empathy and Adolescents

The following is an excerpt from the magnificent book Loving the Stranger: Studies in Adolescence, Empathy and the Human Heart edited by Michael Luxford. This book comes out of the work of the Camphill Communities (curative communties where people of differing abilities live and work together – they arise out of Steiner’s work in the same way that Waldorf education is an expression of his work).
The poles of sympathy and antipathy which the writer refers to is a key point in understanding the inner life of adolescents and teens. The “all or nothing” outlook, the wild oscillations between black and white – these are some of the stresses that toss older children and teen agers. By working on one’s own heart forces, by addressing the healthy in-breath and out-breath of one’s own inner life and thus strengthening one’s own powers of empathy, a power which lives in this healthy rhythm, we can help teens reach balance in their own lives. Crucially, this is never through moralizing – moralizing instantly wipes out anything positive that equanimity might carry. Instead, we – parents and educators (and this book is addressed to teachers and doctors) – lead the way. We walk our talk and strive to find our own balance within the storms our children bring. And, since adolescents and certainly teens are old enough to become aware of their inner processes, we can teach them how to breath into their own stress and, eventually, into the Other, thus also learning empathy.
Rudolf Steiner often spoke of the evolution of human attributes or faculties. He attributed the birth of the faculty of compassion to Gautama Buddha who, encountering the untold suffering in the world once he had finally left his sheltered home, was able to absorb this suffering into himself so that it became a part of his inner experience.
When considering sympathy and antipathy as Steiner described them, we see how they work in social life. In meetings between people there is a constant oscillation between sympathy and antipathy which is almost beyond our control. It is perhaps as little under our control as our breathing process. We “sleep into the other” and reawaken to ourselves in rapid succession and alteration.
Gradually, however, as a furtherance of compassion and conscience, a new possibility has begun to emerge in human experience, which is that of empathy; a new power, a potential for holding still this eternal oscillation between sympathy and antipathy in the same way that we can hold our breath; and in this deed of holding still, a space – a gateway – is opened towards the other person and his experience. This ability relies on a strenuous and meditative activity which leads towards the private world of the other one – into his Sein (state of being) – and creates an experience of his experience.
However, to attain this faculty we have to strip off all illusions about ourselves – all functional relationships (teacher – pupil, doctor – patient etc). We must even strip ourselves of our wish to help. In this way empathy is almost a non-power – the non-power of the consciousness-soul. It is the outcome of the meditative path – the way leading into the landscape of the other person, into his sanctuary…..
This striving for empathy gives to the adolescent the experience that the ocean over which he is sailing is also surrounded by dry land. But, to offer this quality of being dry land beyond the often stormy seas, simply to be it, we must be able to work on our attitudes, to lay aside our “educator” function and, at least for a while, learn to walk on the water in a figurative way but also a real way, and to be with the adolescent in his boat, keeping him company, being at his side when the storm rages.

Posted on November 14, 2008 in Older Children

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