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Sympathy and Antipathy– more than a feeling?

Colleen O’Connors has been a Waldorf teacher for more than 20 years. Originally from RI, she began teaching in Switzerland when her daughter was in kindergarten. Colleeen has a son at Meadowbrook and is currently our 5th grade teacher. Here she writes her reflections from the weekly, faculty study.

In Lecture 2 of Practical Advice to Teachers, Rudolf Steiner develops various aspects of language development and sets them in direct relationship to the two fundamental gestures of sympathy and antipathy, sometimes translated as affinity and aversion. It is very easy to limit the scope of these immense concepts to the familiar sentiments of our feeling life; setting sympathy equal to “I like it” and antipathy to “I don’t like it.” In order to understand what these two ideas have to do with the development of speech (and as we will see, in a wider sense with human development), we need to widen our sense of sympathy as that which unites us with the world, the power that overcomes all that separates us from the other, or as in the case of a young child, does not allow the feeling of separateness to arise. Antipathy, on the other hand, is that which sets us apart – from the world, from one another – but also creates the possibility of “self”-awareness, for I define myself only in that I experience myself as separate from all else. Herein lies also the potential for freedom. After giving a number of examples and emphasizing the necessity of rhythm and its immediate effect on the feeling life spanning these two opposing forces, Steiner closes the lecture with the statement that, “educating the thinking is the opposite of educating the will.” (Steiner, p.29) It was here that the faculty discussion began.

Using various classroom examples, we strove to recognize not only which activities educate the will and which ones educate thinking (if only it were that easy!), but to discern when any activity moves from the will realm into the thinking realm and/or back. This is where our extended understanding of sympathy and antipathy comes in. The will is being educated whenever the doer is one with what is being done. Conversely, thinking is being educated whenever the doer becomes conscious of being separate from what is being or has been done.  Spoken language with its strong connection to breathing – we express (read exhale) our impress-ion (read inhale) of something – is a strongly sympathetic activity, even if we are expressing strong aversion. How quickly that changes when a child begins to unlock the mystery of written language. The sounds that created instant mental images and understanding now appear as a shriveled code that needs to be deciphered. Taught traditionally, learning to read early calls on extensive use of antipathetic forces, whereas in the Waldorf classroom, the letters are combined with images and stories that allow the learner to “sympathize” with the abstract letter symbols, thereby uniting themselves with, rather than setting themselves apart from them.

Our discussions did not end there, however. We spoke of children who become “sympathetic” and often very fluent readers; who open up the pages of a book and climb right in, but who close the book and remember little of what was experienced. Antipathy is the power behind memory. How do we teach such children to set themselves enough apart from their reading experience to be able to remember it and reflect on it enough to be able to, for example, answer comprehension questions? And on a yet greater level of antipathy, how can we get students to proof-read those answers for spelling, punctuation, etc? What is the right age to expect this? What are the gradual steps that lead to this ever greater awakening of “self”-awareness?

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