I remember as a child watching the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker, based on the true story of how Anne Sullivan was able to break through the young Helen Keller’s walls of silence and teach her to communicate. While Anne Sullivan’s tenacity and love are clearly moving, this film actually sparked in me a life-long admiration for and fascination with Helen Keller.
Born in 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller was rendered deaf and blind as an infant from what was likely scarlet fever. Thanks to Anne, Helen learned to communicate through sign language and eventually to read, to write and to speak. We can only imagine how incredibly dark, confusing and lonely a place young Helen’s world was, until Anne Sullivan arrived on March 5th, 1887 – a day which Helen describes as “my soul’s birthday.” (theattic.space)
Helen Keller went on to become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She gave talks and lectures all over the world, was the published author of a dozen books and an intellectual hero (certainly she’s my hero!) and one of the most celebrated women of the 20th century.
Who better to write about optimism than Helen Keller?
Long before our era of “positive thinking” and decades before any scientific evidence would appear on the health benefits of optimism, the remarkable Helen with love and grace was writing about optimism as a life philosophy. “Her essay, simply entitled Optimism was originally published in 1903 and written – a moment of pause here – after Keller learned to write on a grooved board over a sheet of paper, using the grooves and the end of her index pencil to guide her writing.” (Maria Popova)
So I talk to my children about Helen Keller, the little girl imprisoned in silence and darkness whose actions and outlook show us all the way to the light. And I focus on these two things:
1) How optimism will serve you better in life than positive thinking. Although not yet teenagers, my daughters have heard that it’s important to “think positive” and of course they struggle with this in the face of life’s day to day challenges – and don’t we all? The plain fact is, that it’s simply impossible, and I would argue unhealthy, to be positive all the time. In fact, in asking ourselves to be positive all the time, we often stuff down or gloss over the pain and reality of whatever we may be feeling – sadness, guilt, anger, frustration – they all have a place in our lives and are the emotions that help us to develop the skills to navigate the world as it is.
So often we leap into “raising our vibration,” into “fixing” a low feeling that we miss the opportunity that it presents.
Or, to put it more eloquently, in his poem The Guest House, Rumi explains:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in…
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Learn the alchemy
True Human Beings know:
The moment you accept
What trouble you’ve been given,
The door opens.
We have “pathologized the wisdom of the darker, lunar shades of the spectrum” says Matt Licata, we have labelled some of our emotions “bad” and “negative” to our peril. And in our efforts to be always “up” and sunny and happy-happy we have forgotten the gift of hope – which can only be found in the darkness. What do you need with hope if everything is always, already great? To be optimistic is to have confident hope that things will get better, that it wont’ stay hard and dark, that things will change and shift and the sun will rise again.
Optimism: it’s what gets you through the hard, dark times which come to us all.
Few had to work harder or live through darker times than Helen Keller…and perhaps that’s why her light is so bright.
2. My children also know, that for me personally, Helen Keller is my talisman against crippling self-pity. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I allow myself to be inspired by her story. Quite simply, it gives me hope. If she could accomplish what she did in the face of so many challenges, then how can I possibly think the odds are stacked against me? I can see, I can hear, I can talk, I have been well educated and I am well fed and comfortable. All that’s missing is a disciplined mind and a different perspective.
There’s nothing stopping us from living purposeful, intentional, happy lives except ourselves, our limiting beliefs, and our negative self-talk.
Helen Keller knew this and proved this better than anyone I know. And before I am accused of using Helen Keller as a way to “think positive” I can assure you that like you, I have bright days and dark days, days when I am not so proud of myself, days when I weep in sheer frustration and days when frankly I have no idea what I’m doing. I have been speaking with a gifted Jungian therapist for 15 years because I know I have to explore what makes me uncomfortable, I know that what Susan David asserts in her Ted Talk is true: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
I choose hope, for in the dark messy weeds of my issues lies the golden light of opportunity and redemption.
Most days, I am more than willing to work hard at this because like Helen, I am not interested in a falsely positive life, I am interested in a real and meaningful one.
Helen’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her life was a superpower. People who heard her speak reported that they felt lighter, even happier after being in her presence. I can imagine the golden glow of optimism that must have fallen from her like gentle rain on her audience. How hope, like honey in her veins, kept her going in the quiet, dark but undoubtedly full and happy world that was eventually hers. Against all odds, and indeed because of those odds, Helen Keller was able to bring us the grace and beauty of her optimism.
I often believe that this is what is needed, in a world that seems to be growing ever darker, where we seem to have lost our way, where you could turn to the dark and let it engulf you — can we instead look to the brilliant example of a woman unconquered by darkness, who by the light within her shows the way to the light through optimism. This is not the endless call to pretend all is well or to give up in the face of pain, but to acknowledge the dark and keep going anyways…with optimism in our hearts, following the light of hope.