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The Gifts of Struggle

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.

If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

--Albert Einstein

Like Albert Einstein, I am also a big fan of fairy tales. So, I will refer to a classic one to illustrate the goal of how we should work with our children and students in regards to the appropriate amount of struggle. Moreover, it also points to the balance of struggle we must manage within ourselves.

The gift of struggle in Waldorf education

In "The Story of the Three Bears", the little girl eats the porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Yes, this is a very simple idea that we can apply to anything that requires balance. Still I find it fascinating that we can apply this principle, for the purposes of consideration, to the advancements humans have made throughout history--and we can do so in an almost literal way. Once we do that, we can consider what it means for us as individuals.

I can neither take credit for this overly-simplified view of human development, nor unfortunately can I give credit to the individual person who first shared it with me. And to be clear, what I will share is certainly overly-simplified. It points to general trends; yet, as it is with all trends, there are exceptions. So, let us consider a trend without reverting to criticality. I acknowledge up front that this will only be a general trend and that it does not apply to all habitats, people, cultures, countries, etc in an even way. In effect we will look at the whole world, the Earth as a whole organism, from such a distance that we do not differentiate among these kinds of human-group distinctions.

Here is the idea: we see the greatest advancements of learning, development, technologies, arts, and sciences in what are more or less called the temperate regions of the Earth, because these are the regions in which we find that human beings have historically dealt with the optimal amounts of struggle. This general trend is, as you can see, a version of the porridge being not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

In the tropical regions, life was abundant. Simply put, the realization of food, clothing, and shelter were not incredibly taxing. Naturally, the human beings in these regions made advancements that went beyond these basic needs. There are rich traditions in these regions certainly. Still, Mother Nature did not require the same from the people of these regions as what was required in the other regions. Too over-simplify the situation, it was literally too hot in these tropical regions and, relative to the other regions we will look at, life was too easily made comfortable.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was too cold in the arctic and antarctic regions. This does not necessarily correspond with the actual arctic and antarctic circles themselves, which are transcribed by the sun's path at the winter and summer solstices. Still, there are regions north and south of the equatorial / tropical regions where life becomes too demanding. Due to the extremes of cold, the realization of food, clothing, and shelter become burdensome occupations and left little time or opportunity or resources for the realization of advanced sciences or technologies. Mother Nature made life too difficult here. Again, they had wonderful, rich traditions, and they advanced beyond the basic needs of survival, but they just did not advance so much, because life was usually quite stressful here.

It was in the more temperate regions that the struggle with life and advancement was just right. The changing seasons, the various habitats, the subsequent effects that these had on the flora and fauna--all of these combined to make life quite demanding on the human beings who lived there, but not too demanding. The human beings and the societies and cultures that developed in these areas had to struggle to make advances. This just right amount of struggle made the people resilient, resourceful, innovative, insightful, and industrious. At the same time, they were not overburdened with struggle. They had time and resources to apply their skills and capacities, acquired over centuries and centuries, toward technologies that extend far beyond those of survival.

Again, I fully acknowledge that this is a very simplistic view of human history and that there are exceptions to this trend. Yet, the trend remains and it is something we can now consider for ourselves and our own development as well as the development of the students for whom we care.

As we prepare for the school year that approaches, whether we are working in a homeschool setting, a traditional classroom setting, or some version in between, we can keep this in mind: Every child needs to struggle. One of the teacher's great tasks is balancing the appropriate amount of struggle for each child each day. There is no recipe for this because every child is unique. As we give our attention, our devotion, and perhaps most importantly, our contemplation to the growth and development of the child entrusted to our care, we will find a still small voice within us that whispers wisdom. Call it intuition. Call it inspiration. Call it the guardian angel. Call it your muse. Call it what you will. It matters very little what we call it. What matters is that we trust its guidance. This is one of the most intimate and integral aspects of the path of the teacher.

"Every child needs to struggle. One of the teacher's great tasks is balancing the appropriate amount of struggle for each child each day."

I believe in beings. I do not worry about distinctions very much. I am equally comfortable referring to this voice as the voice of my guardian angel or perhaps the child's guardian angel or the voice of intuition, etc. Regardless, I trust that there are beings, of some ultimately incomprehensible nature that are forces for good. These good beings whisper to me when I am devoted and consistent in my contemplations. Many of the ancient masters taught this simple principle to their students: when the student is devoted and consistent, earnest in the pursuit of knowledge, insights, etc, then the teacher, the lesson, the insight must appear. It is a divine law of the universe. At least, it is a law according to many teachers and I believe this to be true.

So, we have two struggles before us that we must balance. We must find the appropriate balance of struggle for our students--not too little and not too much. Too little means too much comfort and no real learning. Too much means too much stress and no real learning. We also have the balance of struggle in this path of the teacher. The path of contemplation/meditation/prayer (call it whatever you feel comfortable calling it), is not without challenges. Can we be consistent? Can we be focused? Can we be open? Can we do all of this without feeling stressed, even when we do not yet hear that inner voice?

As a beginning teacher, I struggled mightily and I certainly felt stressed at times. Slowly I learned that stress was something I had to manage within myself. I had to continue showing up to contemplate, even when there seemed to be no voice answering my questions or providing me with insights. It was a test of faith, of perseverance, of dedication--a test of my will. Also, it was a time of learning. I was learning to have a new relationship with a being (or beings) with whom I had not really related before, or perhaps I had not related to them since I was a child. It took me some time to understand how the voice speaks and how I had to listen. I am still learning this way of communication, this path of teaching. I have resolved myself to the path and not any particular destination. As I become more comfortable in the discomfort of struggle, I become more able to help others such as students with their struggles, knowing when to allow them to struggle, and when to offer some help, fully aware that too much help can be just as hindering to their learning as too little.

I hope that these pictures can be helpful considerations for you.

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