Not only Threat but also Opportunity

Bernd Ruf developed emergency pedagogy within the Friends of Waldorf Education. He visited many crisis areas around the world to give children a ray of hope. Gilda Bartel spoke to him about dealing with crises, the need for irritation, and the moment of awakening.

What is irritating for you personally in these times?

Within a few weeks, the current coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to contain it have changed the everyday lives of individuals, families, institutions, and entire social systems in previously unimaginable ways. A lot of people are insecure and massively frightened by the invisible threat and its consequences. Some psychologists already speak of a collective psychosis. Although I am aware of the inner-psychological and social-societal dynamics in collective crisis situations, I am surprised by the speed of the obvious processes of disintegration. I am irritated by the lightning-like collapse of individual and social values, the targeted exclusion of entire population groups, and the ‹belief war›, which is obviously no longer willing to accept plurality. All signs point to a culture war, the center of which is the question of human nature. We live in a threshold age, whose risks and opportunities Rudolf Steiner repeatedly pointed out.

What are the criteria for getting through crises well?

It is less so the external incidence factors that turn mental stress into psychological or psychosomatic diseases. Much more significant are the individual and environmental factors of the person concerned. What is important is not only what happened, but also how it was experienced. Whether an event has a traumatic effect depends crucially on the extent to which the person concerned is able to cope with the burden.

There are criteria that negatively affect coping with psychological traumas and make it susceptible to traumatization. But there are also protective factors. These include a sheltered childhood, physical and psychological stability, well-managed experiences of the past, positivity, coherence, finding meaning, spiritual and religious roots, stable self-esteem, reliable relationships, and being integrated into viable social networks.

Image Source: Bernd Ruf

Where do you see the difference between the crisis areas you have visited and the current crisis situation caused by Corona?

Corona traumatizes collectively. So far, the psychosocial effects can only be indicated suggestively, especially since scientific research results on the traumatic consequences of epidemics are not available. Nevertheless, natural and man-made disasters have been the subject of scientific studies. These show that a dramatic increase in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, aggression outbursts, post-traumatic stress disorder, dysthymia, alcoholism and other addiction problems, somatization, and developmental disorders in children and adolescents can be assumed.

Interestingly, the current global infection situation has characteristics of both a natural disaster and a man-made disaster, as the measures taken to combat the pandemic also have significant potential for trauma. Natural disasters almost always lead to cohesion and solidarity within the affected population. People seek safety and comfort in human proximity. On the other hand, in the case of man-made disasters (wars, terrorist attacks, displacement, crime, etc.), there are often signs of division in interpersonal communication. Of course, this division does not pass by anthroposophical institutions. People are prone to more criticism, mutual recriminations as well as justifications, and denunciation. Divorce rates within the population are also rising. In Germany, for example, divorce rates have skyrocketed during the lockdown of the corona crisis.

What do we make of this situation? And what role do awakening moments play?

When Friedrich Schiller once lived through a phase of artistic and intellectual unproductivity, he described his painful state in a long letter to his wife, which ends with the exclamation: «I need a crisis».

In psychology, biographical transitions in which states of the familiar and the supportive are abandoned in favor of new experience are referred to as life-changing crises.

Crises are not only threats but also opportunities. After a trauma healing, those affected reorient their lives, set new priorities. Religious and spiritual orientations are gaining importance, as is the deepening of human relationships. Traumas do not only have the potential for destruction. After successfully coping with the traumatic experience, instead of repression and separation, a maturation of the personality occurs. This is referred to as ‹post-traumatic growth›. Concrete actions can result from this awakening moment or the overcoming of the pandemic trauma. For example, lighthouse projects, the formation of cultural oases, the overcoming of materialism, or the formation of new networks to strengthen interpersonal relationships and values. Therefore, these situations can lead to a personality maturation with appropriate coping and also offer perspectives in the collective corona trauma.

The irritations in the crisis can be awakening moments. The Corona crisis is no different. For many people, the threatening and oppressive current events are also moments of reflection and reorientation with regard to their personal lives, their social relationships, their socio-political engagement, and their spiritual-religious orientation. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the corona pandemic in March last year that the world would be different after this crisis. And added that it depends on all of us in which world and in which society we will then live. We should actively take up this challenge of the corona crisis and try to turn the crisis into an opportunity for further development.

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