[In America] a person who has come through a crisis is sometimes called ‘little resurrection-man’. This comparison is quite wrong! Emerging from a crisis can make one stronger and enable one to gain new experiences. In the technical world everything becomes weaker through use, but this is not so in a living organism. Here the forces will increase through use. This is an indication that the life forces are central in ‘resilience’ and in the forces we develop in order to overcome a crisis.
Whether it is Berlin in 1945, the Spanish Civil War or Aleppo in Syria and whether a city or a whole world is destroyed, you can still see joy in the faces of the children, even if they have been injured. How is it possible that people can overcome such disasters and be well?
Another example: as we were making self-portraits one of my students took a rough rock and drilled lines in it and coloured them black. When presenting the work he explained: “This was my brother’s death, this was a serious car accident and this was my mother’s cancer”. They were his traumatic experiences. Everyone was deeply moved. Then one of the students said: “But the rock is standing up so straight!” The young man was speechless, because he himself had not noticed it. This is what art can do. We transform an idea while making use of aesthetic moments that come straight from the subconscious. These aesthetic qualities arise from our deepest inner constitution. The student changed completely when the other students shared their observations with him. While previously a critical student who had problems joining in, he was now quite engaged. This transformation became for me a symbol of resilience.
Seven stages of resilience
While occupying myself with resilience I was able to distil seven concepts from what I had read: acceptance, flexibility, relinquishing victimhood, responsibility, forming friendships, an active way of planning the future in order to cope and manage, and a certain kind of spirituality or transcendence.
So what is acceptance? The tango dancer Karoline Erdmann wrote a book about her life with breast cancer. You can see on the cover that she had a rose bush tattooed on the scar after it had healed. She had a dress made which left the amputated breast area free, and, together with her dance partner, she offered tango courses on hospital wards for women with breast cancer. “The illness was there and it hurt. When I accepted it I was set free.” She experiences this like the blossoming of a rose. Other women with the illness tell us very convincingly that it gave them strength to have such an example. This famous saying is ascribed to Francis of Assisi : “God, give me the peace of mind to accept things that I cannot change…..”
This saying continues as an example of flexibility: “….and the courage to change things that I am able to change and the wisdom to distinguish between the two”. Only if I can distinguish between them will I be in the position to deal with my life in a flexible way. To illustrate this here is a picture by Giorgio Morandi (1), one of the greatest and at the same time least well known artists of the 20th century. For 40 years he painted the same things. Like a monk, isolating himself in a small room, he would always paint the same dishes, plates and cups. If you have occupied yourself with Rudolf Steiner’s exercise of contemplating a pencil for four weeks and then keeping out any thoughts that do not belong to it, you will know: on the first day it is fun, on the second it is still interesting, but on the third day it is already becoming more difficult. Giorgio Morandi persevered for 40 years. He arranged the objects on the table in different ways. First he painted them realistically and later he concentrated on the spaces in between. It is as if they have grown wings and have become transparent. This is the power that comes about if you do not adhere strictly to a plan, but work with it in a flexible way.
Relinquishing victimhood is the most difficult thing to do. If I think I know who bears the blame for my misfortune it appears to bring relief. This person is then the one who will determine my life and in this way I am putting my greatest enemy in the most prominent place in my soul, poisoning myself in the process. It is difficult to give up doing this. Imre Kertész managed it. He received the Nobel Prize for the novel ‘Roman eines Schicksallosen’ (‘Fateless’). He describes a young person in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Yet you do not read here that so and so did it, but he describes that he himself participated in the disaster which happened in Auschwitz. He only describes what he did because he wanted to get his destiny back again. If I say that so and so forced me into something it would not be ‘my’ destiny any longer. So “I want to get my destiny back” was what spurred Kertész on. It is totally impossible to read this book without feeling ashamed about making something else responsible for what happens in one’s own biography. Reading the book is already in itself a catharsis, a cleansing process. In the following sentences of a poem the poet Rainer Maria Rilke also expresses this: “Whatever our mind gains from confusion will somehow benefit life.” Wresting meaning from pain is feeling that it could be important that something happened in a certain way, for otherwise I would not have got to know a particular person, for example. Trauma loosens one’s constitution; it allowed me to become sensitive and become an artist. With the help of our self (our ego) we can gain insight into this. As long as our ego is not able to rein in our astral body it will be crouching on top of the life forces like a bird on its prey. If the ego is somehow able to wrest something away from it, maybe by promising something, the astral body will loosen its grip. This will benefit the life forces. Imre Kertész completely dissolved the chaos. Rilke said that even if they are only thoughts they can nevertheless have an effect on the life forces. Yet if it is a feeling and becomes habit, then the effect is greater. Then it is able to move worlds and a star will change position and I will have a new direction in my biography. This is relinquishing victimhood.
One is quite advanced if one takes on responsibility for unwanted outcomes which cannot even be observed.
The next concept is taking on responsibility: When Willy Brandt knelt in front of the memorial monument of the ghetto in Warsaw in 1970 on the 25th Anniversary of the end of the war for a misdeed he had not committed- in fact he belonged to the Resistance- he took on responsibility for what had taken place in the name of Germany. One is quite advanced if one takes on responsibility for unwanted outcomes which cannot even be observed. This is even greater than relinquishing victimhood.
Connection is one of the most powerful factors which can help someone get out of a crisis. You might be working with a young person who has failed in school due to a burden of conflict and who has become a criminal. We offer him therapy and he is given support workers to be at his side. Sometimes this just does not work out. When we meet him again after ten years he has completely changed. What gave him the strength to change? His reply might be: “Because at that time you believed in me. There were people who saw something in me that I was unable to see.”
“Your place is where eyes are looking at you;
where eyes meet, you rise up.
You thought you were falling
but you are not
because eyes are catching you”
(Hilde Domin). (1)
‘A Rag Community’ is the name of a picture by Paul Klee in which, with two strokes on a scrap of material, he draws two people who are connected with each other. This connection helps, no matter how broken everything around them is. (2)
Transformation in this context means that life can take a completely new direction. We have noticed that we are running into walls all the time and getting into a crisis. There must be something wrong with the direction we have taken. If we manage to inwardly change we can call this ‘transformation’. A painting by Caravaggio can shed some light on this: Saul, who persecuted Christians, collapses in Damascus and then has a vision in which Christ asks him: “Why are you persecuting me?” There is a saying attributed to Che Guevara: “One who fights can lose; one who does not fight has lost already.” Then he adds: “So let us be realistic and attempt the impossible” (The German [German: ‘Sie wir’] is not clear here, there might be a typo. [tr]). It is on the level of the will whether or not one actually takes one’s life into one’s hands again in a totally different way.
Lastly: spirituality counts. Many researchers into resilience have been surprised by this, as have researchers into salutogenesis or self-regulation. People who have a spiritual orientation have more forces at their disposal. If I believe that everything that happens to me does so by chance I will not be able to make sense of it either. But if I experience that our dear God put some thought into it when burdening me with this stroke of fate and might suspect that I would be able to cope with it then this in itself already gives me strength. This means that there are soul- qualities that contribute to health, and a spiritual or religious basic attitude belongs to this. People who have great resilience will also deal with illnesses differently. You can test this quite easily and by asking questions in a conversation you can observe how strongly developed they are.
Time and again we physicians meet patients who have hardly any forces of resilience left. With our most effective functional medicines we have here great difficulties to still achieve anything. People who have strong forces of resilience on the other hand do react well to anthroposophical medicines. It is therefore all the more important to ask where these forces come from.
Resilience and Rudolf Steiner’s Seven Life Processes.
During my training I worked intensively with Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about the seven life processes. With anything that I experienced in relation to the human organism I would ask myself which life process was involved. I also tried in vain to find an eighth or ninth life process. Whether we are dealing with processes in the cell membranes or the senses these seven life processes are always present. Rudolf Steiner describes them for each living organism, both in the way they face the outside world and also in relation to their specific inner faculties. Each organism takes in substances from outside. Everything is then absorbed into the inwardly losing its own nature as something that was originally foreign and is disturbed. This is the case with food as well as with air or sense impressions. ‘Breathing’ is there first- for instance in how we bring saliva into our food, cool down what is hot, warm up what is cold. Then there is ‘warming’ before the food reaches the stomach. Then it is completely dissolved in our intestines while being digested. Through secretion it is individualized. Once inside it must be maintained. Growth is then finally intensified into reproducing, into the renewal that culminates in generation.
Here we can detect a form of mirroring: You take in something foreign when breathing, but when reproducing you give back something non-foreign to the outside. In warming the foreign body is absorbed inwardly and in growing I mature in relation to the outer conditions. In digesting I completely destroy the foreign element within and in maintaining my inner body is completely restored again. These are opposites: destroying and maintaining, adapting and growing, absorbing and reproducing. All of this is held by a fourth process, a middle process. In order to digest the food that has been ingested, secretions must be formed. Already thinking about a lemon will make the saliva flow. Something is being secreted and is being put over against the foreign element that has been ingested. In order to keep these inner processes in check I will then excrete hormones into the blood by the milligram. Something that was at first outside is thus ‘in-creted’ (excreted inwards) and forms individualised substance.
Rudolf Steiner draws our attention to the fact that when as a child, for instance, we lose our milk teeth or undergo physical changes, a certain part of our life forces have no longer any work to do inside the body and that these life forces are then set free. Now they are at the disposal of the soul for learning. We also take in something from outside into our soul. This is perception. Everything we see, hear or touch, we compare with our experiences and assimilate it. Finally we analyse and differentiate what we have taken in. This can be compared to destroying something when digesting. Secreting is related to the inner questioning with which you meet what has been taken in. Just as nutrition maintains and builds up the body so also what has been perceived will contribute to forming one’s own ideas. Each intuition, each newly created insight has a relationship to reproduction.
When observing this sevenfold process it becomes clear that the processes do not merely take place consecutively but rather simultaneously. They form an organism. In the way the organism is kept going by the process of secreting so it is also kept going in the soul by this questioning. When I perceive something I accept it. The meaning of getting used to each other without losing one’s own direction is that I have to deal with a challenge in a flexible way. In the same way as we destroy our food in order to be able to use it, so must we also leave behind fixed ideas in our soul, for instance like the typical picture of ourselves as victims. Thus coming to terms with my destiny means that I am making conscious the part the other one plays, but most of all the part I myself play. I must differentiate between these things. In the social context the building of community is exactly the same process that in resilience is described as ‘belonging’, a sense of belonging.
I can change something by observing life and seeing the tasks it brings along. For a long time I have been going in a different direction, but now I accept the new tasks; now I am changing the direction my life had taken up to this moment. From this intuitive moment onwards everything becomes transcendent. In other words, I am entering a spiritual dimension which I am almost only able to think once I have understood the life processes. All of this is only possible because I am taking responsibility for what I perceive in the world, for what I do with it and how I transform it.
Already immediately it becomes clear that what psychology has researched as ‘forces of resilience’ paints a picture of what Steiner described as the life forces. Steiner describes the life processes as the toolbox of the etheric body. In the night the etheric is busy restoring our body. During the day I pull forces from there and think and live with them. If I let these life processes do something creative within my soul, in my thinking and in the social life, they will return to my body with renewed strength. This is why people who are resilient are healthier.
Forces between body and soul
Observing and imitating happen in the first seven years. Making links between an inner world one has acquired and the foreign world outside is the secret of the second seven year period. In puberty one suddenly begins to question everything critically. So it continues all through one’s biography. In healthy human beings life forces are freed up and taken into the soul where they are used creatively. The situation in a traumatic process is that I have to understand something I am by far not yet able to understand. This means that in my soul I am using up forces I do not yet have. These I am taking from my body but in my soul I am as yet unable to do anything with them. They are then hanging in between and instead of being digested in my body, in my intestines, the intestines themselves are now being digested. Then you have a chronic intestinal inflammation. The growth processes that do not reach the soul fall back on the body and turn into something that does not belong there; this is cancer. Or it might be the other way around, namely that they are being pulled away too strongly from the body and begin to rove around in the soul. Instead of digesting the actual experience the soul is now being digested: “Why always me?” When I am unable to work through these images a psychosis can come about. This is because the life processes are not fully within the body, nor fully within the soul, but are hanging in between. I can ask myself whether I should deal with a situation with flexibility or hold on to it firmly. Should I let go of the role of being the victim or suffer it? Should I take the responsibility or pass it on? Should I form relationships or become lonely? Should I transform my biography or resign myself to it? Should I become spiritual or rather materialistic? We have now suddenly been given responsibility for the life processes, which used to work within our body all by themselves: How can I deal with my new situation spiritually and in my soul?
It is very special that by means of our knowledge of the human being we have a system and medicaments by which we can connect artistic therapy and conversation. On the level of conversation I can do the same thing as with art or medicaments. Then something comes together. There are so many patients with chronic illnesses who have a GP, a clinic, a naturopath and then on top of that still a psychotherapist, all of whom develop their own diagnosis and therapy. In anthroposophy all these come together; conversations, art and medicine are on the same line. Of course this does not succeed all the time, but when it does we can experience miracles.
Martin Straube, born in 1955, works as a physician in anthroposophic medicine. He specialized in Aids in Pforzheim for some years. Then he became lecturer at the Academy for Social Therapy and in the faculty of the Ita Wegman Professional Training for Curative Education as well as in the Curative Teacher’s training in Witten. Together with his wife he travelled to areas torn by war and crisis in order to work with children who are traumatized. Since 2017 he has been active in a course for teachers working with trauma, together with Bernd Ruf of the ‘Freunde der Erziehungskunst’ and with psychotherapist Christian Schopper.
Published in ‘Das Goetheanum’ volume 45/2018