My beloved professor passed away last July. August DeBerdt was born February 19, 1934.So in honor of his birthday,
better late than never, I wanted to share some of what I learned from him.
I attended Berry College in 1994. A small liberal arts college in the foothills of Georgia. It was difficult for me as a first generation college student. I was excited to learn. But I was scared to death.
I wanted to hide my head from the horrors of the world. But I was also impossibly curious. I wanted to be a writer. So, rather against my will, I was driven to know what was true and what was important in life, and I was not prepared for how my emotional protections would have to be shattered for me to face reality without running from it.
Some of my professors were cynical and snide. I knew nothing about the life of a professor then; of how hard it is to get a job (usually hundreds of miles from your family). I’m sure some of my professors felt oppressed by their great intellects being wasted on the backwaters of Georgia. But I had to experience their malaise personally. As an honors student in a small town high school, I was not prepared for the arrogance and negativity of some of my professors. They rolled their eyes at my faith. They sighed at my naivete. One of my professors even told me straight up that my writing was terrible and that I should just give up and not even try to be a writer. I was heartbroken. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to become.
German Class was an oasis of calm for me. I had taken German classes mostly because I clepped into high level classes and could easily get a 2nd major in German. I was so glad I did. De Berdt was simply a joy. He was never dismissive of his students. He did not treat us like disciples to be molded in his ideology. He did not treat us as idiots to be ridiculed. He did not treat us as an insult to his intelligence or a waste of his time. He was curious and he wanted us to be curious. He did not shield us from the bloody evils of history, but he taught us difficult information with hope and love. From him I learned that it was possible for a person to honestly face the sorrow and terror of the human condition, discussing it openly and calmly, while holding hope and joy in one’s heart at the same time. (It took me quite a while longer to believe that it was possible for ME to be able to do that myself!)
He had no illusions about our abilities. He knew we were not going to produce perfect work. He just met us where we were, cared about us, and guided us from there. He loved the literature he taught, and he did everything he could to make us interested in the deep mysteries of life, and how German literature could help us plumb those depths.
He did things his own way. His accent was rather odd. But he was unselfconscious as a cat. Every now and then, despite living in America for decades, he would invent a pronounciation for an English word. My favorite was “before you judge a man, you must first walk a mile in his moCASSins.” He wore his silver hair in a long ponytail and often wore shorts with socks and sandals. He loved to cook, and to invite us to his house for German dinners, including his authentic Black Forest Cherry cake which he insisted must be made with real Kirschwasser. I loved to visit his house, and I loved his slightly half-baked art; weird wooden sculptures and puzzles made with his lathe, as well as slightly wobbly sketches of sites of interest around Berry College, and oil paintings in a shaky rococo style, full of odd-looking angels. He was a doer. He worked in his garden and biked his neighborhood. He spoke French and Walloon as well, and taught himself Spanish after retirement, so he could work with adult ESL students at the Rome library.
He knew something about how to live. I wanted to learn how.
I knew that back in Belgium he was a priest, and that it did not go very well for him. I suspected that he had lived through all the crises of faith that I was going through, and more. I didn’t learn until much later, when I read his book, about the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse by the priests in his order.
I would have left church too, under those circumstances. He left the church, but he did not abandon his beliefs.
The word “belief” comes from the German word “beliebt”. Beliebt means beloved.
Believed. Means. Beloved.
In its original meaning, believing had nothing to do with proven facts, as it is thought to mean these days. We might say sentences like “he still believes in Santa Claus” or “she doesn’t believe in Global Warming.” There are a zillion potential facts that you have to choose yes or no. You keep them or throw them out. You choose which bits of information to “believe”, and which to dismiss as propaganda or fake news.
In its original sense, belief had little to do with “facts,” and much to do with love. What you believe in is what you love, what moves you to positive action. Belief has nothing to do with what ideas you claim as “fact”. Belief has nothing to do with providing proofs, covering your bases legally, or winning arguments. What you believe in, whether you are aware of it or not, are the directions you send your time, money, and energy. Your beliefs are what you spend your life doing. This I learned from my professor.
DeBerdt could not “believe” in the version of “god” imagined by the priests who managed to twist their lust for control into some idea of “just punishment”. He saw through their idol, and the idols of others who SAY and THINK they worship God, but are deluded into worshiping their idols of God. SAYING and THINKING are not the same as BELIEVING.
DeBerdt’s higher power helps people to discover their gifts and use them to help others, and does not shame them into submission to whatever authority asserted itself. His God was one of love and generativity, not fear and control. His God was the God that Goethe wrote poetry about. A God who understood that we were created of nature, not to think of ourselves as better than nature but to unlearn the world’s dirty definitions and relearn what God meant for us to be all along. DeBerdt’s God wanted us to live a joyful life; a life of love and service. He loved his wife without bounds, caring tirelessly for her during her many years of illness, in which she got frailer and grouchier. He loved his students and did everything he could to help us. He lived his beliefs.
Dr. DeBerdt truly faced the great evils of humanity, clear-eyed and with a wry, morbid sense of humor. At the same time, he believed in the worth of fragile things. He believed in education. He believed in the beauty of life itself. He believed in the worth of human beings and of nature. He believed in love, and in the positive actions that love causes. He lived his beliefs.
Here is his favorite short Goethe poem that he had us memorize. The translation is mine.
Rest in peace, my beloved teacher.
|Über allen Gipfeln|
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde
balde Ruhest du auch.
Over all the hilltops
lies the quiet,
In all the treetops
Hardly a breath;
The birds hush in the woods
soon you too shall rest