Who gives a name to wisdom? Where does wisdom come from? In defining wisdom, I could find inspiration from the names of people I find wise in some fashion: my 7th grade English teacher, my mother’s parents, Ellie Wiesel. And yet, how did they become wise, or why do I consider them wise? For me, wisdom lies in stories: the ability to give voice to the past in order to give context to the present and a foundation or guide for the future. My grandfather was a great storyteller who would retell our family history though tales of pirates and captains on ships in the North Sea. My grandmother consumes stories of the past like bread and uses them in conversation to defend her positions and warn of repeating old mistakes. And Ellie Wiesel speaks of the past as a way to never forget. These are older generations speaking to the future to leave a mark of their morality, values, and experiences gained through time and trial.
My own quest to realizing what wisdom means (to me) started along a bumpy road of realizations of other people’s own inner stories and struggles. They became more than stories; they became my own stories. I internalized them to understand them in contrast with my own experiences and emotions. For example, growing up in Southwestern Arizona with Dutch parents meant being “different” in terms of the language I spoke at home (Dutch), my first name (Darijn), and what I ate for lunch (not PB&J). Yet in the Sonoran Desert landscape, I was also surrounded by ethnic, racial, tribal, linguistic, and other categorizations of state ordained difference.
At what point did childhood insecurities begin to transform into a deeper understanding of life and humanity, and my quest for wisdom? Fundamentally it starts with family, particularly my grandfather, and the influence he had on me. Family means identity but also coming to question that identity, as happened when I transferred from Waldorf to public school. During this transitional phase, I simultaneously lost my favorite cat and grandfather, and entered a series of close relationships with people struggling with their own inner demons. Initially I felt powerless in the face of the vast universe and the cruelty it inflicted on human kind, and yet by middle school I began seeking ways to hear the stories of others through volunteerism and service, to value other perspectives on life, and how experience can shape one’s worldview, values, and path in life. Keeping in mind the stories of my grandparents and Ellie Wiesel (who all spoke of World War Two atrocities), and by meeting and really listening to others, I aspired to foster within myself not only the desire for knowledge but also how to use that knowledge to further help others.
The first time I cried for the death of a loved one, my favorite cat Gerrit had died. I was seven years old and Gerrit hadn’t even lived to one. My parents let each of us (my brother, sister, and I) pick an animal when we entered first grade so that we could learn how to take care of something other than ourselves. My brother chose a white rat; when I returned from the Humane Society I came home with not one but four cats. I simply could not make up my mind which one I wanted the most. I felt responsible for them: their food, water, and lives in the treacherous Sonoran Desert, with scorpions under the rocks, birds of prey in the skies, and brawny bobcats hiding amongst the cacti. I knew life was precious, and assumed it could be sustained by enough food, water, and sleep. That’s what kept humans alive, I gathered.
Gerrit was the first loss. Sudden and unexpected because he had been wild and full of energy, something I could relate to as a seven year old. I didn’t understand where that energy went when he died. Did it dissipate into the air or become part of the energy of the earth? Or did it just grow smaller and smaller inside him, until it was basically gone? Maybe there was a cat heaven? I turned to my grandfather, an academic of theology, for answers. I don’t remember exactly what he told me, but I can recall that feeling of frustration that even a man studying God’s word his whole life could not tell me exactly where Gerrit had gone.
A year later, my grandfather passed away as well. Melanoma had been tearing away at his body from the inside, until he no longer looked like a 70 year old scholar and tennis player but a withered 90 year old. I was sleeping in his big bed facing the Catalina Mountains, curled up next to my sister, when I woke up feeling a strange, disturbing calm. I tiptoed into the living room where my grandfather had been sleeping to find my mother, aunt, grandmother, and others singing psalms around his bed. I spent the rest of the morning collecting flowers from the garden to lie around his head, comforting my sister in my arms. She was inconsolable; I did not shed a tear.
I think of my grandfather often; his life, charisma, and vision left a mark on my family that still to this day I do not know is a light or dark mark. Light in the sense that he was renowned and successful in his field, a wonderful grandfather, and full of fierce knowledge. Dark because his charisma often blinded him from his own failures as a father. He knew me best as a Waldorf child, enchanted by fairies and gnomes, and would entertain me with stories. He told me of sea pirates too, but perhaps he found me too young to tell me his own life stories and struggles. I never saw the darker side of my grandfather in life, only in the stories of others much later.
Shortly before his death, he told my mother that he wanted to give each of his grandchildren his blessing. I went to him after my older brother. He didn’t look like my grandfather anymore. I wanted to run away. He put his hand on my head and said some words, but the only part that I truly remember was that he promised me that on my 18th birthday I would receive the Oberman family ring and be part of the family and its history. A complicated, messy family, full of feuds over inheritance and conflicted memories, I would come to realize.
My grandfather was not as perfect as I saw him as a child, but he remains a force of wisdom and inspiration for me. My childhood world and stories of gnomes changed after his death, seeking out stories to investigate my different family members’ stories and perspectives. And I set out to try to solve what my grandfather had left unsolved, or even perpetuated, within our family. As I started to become older, I wanted to hear both sides of the story, to be a kind of ambassador to rekindle reconciliation and kinship. Reflecting on this, I see it as a turning point in my quest for deep understanding of personal experience as an avenue to find peace between people and cultures.
I remember at family reunions, we sang the song “Wandering Star” to honor my grandparents and their world travels. I wonder if I, too, was born under a wandering star. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia while my father did his medical residency and we moved to Tucson, Arizona when I was three so that my mother could be closer to her parents, who she wanted to reconcile with after a lifetime of tension and misunderstanding, every summer, we would all return to the Netherlands, where my entire family comes from. I grew up bilingual near the border with Mexico, where Spanish soon interested me too. Learning about the world through travel, cultures, and language play a significant role in shaping my quest.
Growing up with my family meant a unique sense of humor (crazy costumes at birthdays and songs for every occasion) and also a multicultural perspective on social issues in Arizona. Immigration is always a big topic, along with racial profiling, poverty, and education. Life seemed so unfair, not because of inherent conditions, but because of the suffering that people inflicted on each other. During high school I saw it fundamentally as an issue of a lack of mutual understanding between people. So far, my quest had been to listen carefully to different sides of the story. How could I combine my love for seeing the world with storytelling?
I started learning German and went to Munich and later Berlin to immerse myself in the language and culture of Germany, a country whose legacy connected directly to the stories of my grandparents and Ellie Wiesel. How could such a beautiful and productive country have such a scarring, evil past? I hoped being in the country itself could shed light on this conflict. I also studied Spanish in Costa Rica, a few months after Arizona passed the SB1070 bill allowing racial profiling. I remember the conversations I had where I felt uncomfortable telling people that I came from Arizona, always reminding them I didn’t support the bill. Yet it also sparked fascinating discussions that revealed to me deeper historical perspectives and memories of injustice inflicted by the United States on Latin American peoples.
Through my quest for mutual understanding I stumbled upon another realization: the history I was taught in school wasn’t comprehensive or inclusive of the experiences of minorities and other cultures who suffered due to U.S. policy. This made me more determined than ever to make my quest one of both gathering stories from all sides of the official history, and also pursuing social justice to make an impact on the world, so that these stories could be listened to and acted upon. Volunteerism transformed into leadership roles in service organizations such as the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, which in turn lead me to other parts of the world to fuse service and leadership through story gathering. I wandered from place to place, determined to immerse myself in each new language with an open mind. Thus, travel and language allowed me to examine issues abroad that ultimately gave me a broader perspective of the situation at home, and what I can bring back to it.
This past summer I was interning and teaching English for a small non-profit in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a situation where I came face-to-face with my own inner aspirations but also insecurities. The director of the project I was working for would sometimes get in terrible fits of rage, where he forced us interns to scrub the floor for six hours straight, proceeding to yell at us for not caring about genocide. He fired my roommate (and mental health support) on the grounds for being “toxic” only because she challenged his assumptions. He had no grounds to say treat us the way he did, but the way he spoke to me personally led me to question my own management capacity. I felt inadequate, even when I was working sixteen hours a day to support the summer institutes in two cities once in conflict during the war, simultaneously teaching five classes.
Overworked and emotionally stressed by my boss, I still felt an immense sense of happiness and optimism working with the students—even in light of Bosnia’s enormous socioeconomic and political challenges, these students demonstrated an incredible level of intelligence, compassion, and motivation for change. Interacting with these students and the other interns gave me a space to reflect on my own life, something I feel that I have too little time for during my busy days at Harvard. I had come to Bosnia to feel the real impact of non-profit work among the people directly affected, something I had not felt working on human rights issues at the European Parliament the summer before. Real change. Real issues. Real people. Hearing their stories. And also looking back on my own story, still in the making.
Rather than focusing on my bitter, abusive boss as the focal point of my summer, I reflected on my role in the lives of others. My boss was clearly dealing with psychological issues of his own—how often had other people come into my life with problems greater than themselves, who I had sought to comfort and ultimately understand? My friendships and relationship since childhood include stories of children and teens—as well as other bosses— dealing with abusive parents, drug and alcohol addictions, traumatic memories of civil wars abroad, divorcing parents with their own mental health issues. My role was always the supportive friend or girlfriend or coworker, listening, giving advice. I think of their personal stories in the greater context of society’s shortcomings, and also of the impact of their stories on my own soul—and quest—in relation to the lives of others.
In class, we have discussed the roles of catastrophes and suffering as shaping one’s quest for wisdom. I cannot pinpoint one great tragedy in my life; instead I see threads of stories (my own and others) all woven together to become my story. Being so connected to friends as they struggled with catastrophe and suffering brought me so close to the abyss they seemed to be teetering on, that I felt like I was there with them, not only trying to hold them in support, but feeling and seeing what they went through.
Stories, empathy, knowledge, helping others. Those words and their realms of meaning have come to signify key moments in my quest for wisdom, shaped by my upbringing and close personal experiences with both people and service organizations. The importance of these words in my story starts with family. My mother teaches religion and psychology at the University of Arizona, an interesting crossroads that has influenced my way of thought and analysis. I have seen both the inspiring and grim roads religion has had in my family, from scholarly enlightenment that lead my grandfather to become a professor at Harvard’s Divinity school, to the cultish obsession of my other grandfather. Perhaps both versions blinded these devout men from real human suffering.
Sometimes I still wonder where Gerrit and my grandfather ended up after the energy in their bodies and eyes vanished. I let the unanswered questions guide me, leading me to what is at stake for me in life. My family, feuding as they might be, matter to me. My desire for knowledge beyond official histories. Other people’s stories, and the roads they lead me on towards empathy and service. I also realize that beyond being a listening ear, its also important for me to make a real impact. And that takes listening to action, passive ears to using my voice, infused by the voices of others.