Your Turn: Study abroad helps correct early stumbles

I’ve recently returned from Germany. I was there for nine weeks studying abroad, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. As I reflect on it now, though, I still can’t quite believe I made it there.

I don’t know a lot, and the longer I live the less that I feel I know. There is one thing I grow increasingly certain of, however, and it’s this: The crucial experiences in life tend to blindside us when we’re busy pursuing something else.

I can’t recommend enough going abroad, but even as I recommend it, I have to laugh at the bizarre journey that led me to Germany. It may be best described as a literary journey, though that would be giving me too much credit because I didn’t read a book cover to cover until I was 20, and even then I only did it to impress a girl. Nothing came of the girl, but my true love — literature — found me at the bottom of that debased, though somewhat endearing, state. So, there I was, 20 years old and disillusioned, and I took “The Sun Also Rises” as a guidebook, which has obvious consequences.

I spent two years on all manner of drugs and then two years recovering from the two years of self-destruction. At the dawn of recovery, I ended up in Dallas. During the two years that ensued, I was haunted by the despair and loneliness that often accompany recovering from addiction. While I was there, I was forced to take a job in a Highland Park establishment waiting tables. I hated every minute of it, but it wasn’t long after I left to return to school that I realized that nothing had ever been so beneficial to me.

Further, during my solitary time in Dallas, made possible by that job and the isolation of recovery, I read a lot, became interested in the golden age of the cinema, and even wrote a novel (it wasn’t any good, but I wrote it). Yet, even as my mind and body recovered and I cultivated an artistic interest that had laid entirely dormant up to that point, I was haunted by the belief that the better part of my life was behind me, for I truly believed that the springtime of drug addiction was as good as life could get. And then I found the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and, with his works, the belief that life was worth living. His re-envisioning of the Faust myth over 200 years earlier allowed me to re-envision my view of the earthly pilgrimage.

Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2016, I returned to KU to study literature and to try to learn German, to better understand the language and culture that shaped Goethe. Due to the U.S. Department of State’s Gilman Scholarship and the University of Kansas’ Krehbiel Scholarship, I was able to study in Germany this past summer. I lived with a host family that became like a real family, improved my knowledge of the language through classes and daily interactions, and got to spend a week in Weimar, which is where Goethe lived for the final 50 years of his life.

Goethe summed up my situation when he penned the final words to “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”: “I’ve attained a happiness which I do not deserve, and that I would exchange for nothing in the world.” I’ve been fortunate to find a passion and to be able to pursue that passion, to live two years in a place like Dallas and to study in Germany, and it all started because I was disillusioned with life and trying to impress a girl by pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. I fell flat on my face in the short term, as I deserved to, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Life, it seems, must be lived, first or last, and we’re forced to live it from a place of ignorance. So, you must follow your heart and try to listen to that faint flicker of consciousness deep within. Often our desires are a little vain, and we seem a little foolish, but as William Blake wrote in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.”

— Brandon Wiederholt is a student at the University of Kansas.