Friday, October 14, 2011

helen keller on pessimism

"No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." - Helen Keller

If I could talk to Helen Keller, just spend an hour or two spelling words into her hand and hearing her speak in reply, I know exactly how I’d spend it. I’d start with a question: “Helen,” I’d say, “Would you please help me understand how it is that you have been able to maintain such a relentlessly optimistic outlook?”
It’s funny that I should be asking questions of Helen Keller, a folk hero who died in 1968. Helen Keller never knew it, but she and I have had a lengthy, rocky relationship. Life is full of surprises.
I dared not admit it in public, but the truth is, I did not admire Helen Keller when I was young. Admiring her was so fashionable, so done! I prided myself on being an original thinker, a critical analyst. There was much about the legend of Helen Keller that bothered me.
Her writing bothered me. I read some of her books and judged them to be untruthfully sappy. Her comparability bothered me. I looked upon the real deafblind citizens of Edmonton and felt the pain they must have felt when they were expected to measure up to her standards. Her wealth bothered me. I saw how impoverished other deafblind people were, lacking the financial resources of Helen’s wealthy father. Her teacher bothered me. I saw how isolated most deafblind people were, lacking a lifelong devoted teacher like the ever-faithful Anne Sullivan.
It is not too surprising that I felt something akin to joy when I began to discover evidence that Helen might not have been perfect. I heard Helen’s voice on the radio. It sounded horrible, almost not human! “Aha!” I said to myself, “You weren’t perfect!” I read that attending a dinner party with Helen was an experience in frustration. Helen, unaware of table conversation, would constantly interrupt. “Aha!” I said to myself. “More proof that you weren’t perfect!”
So now that I’ve finally come clean, confessed all this in public, it humbles me to also admit that somewhere along the lifeline, I joined that throng of billions who consider Helen Keller a personal hero. I know she wasn’t perfect, yet I look to her for inspiration. I think she would have been a great supporter of hope studies. Her comments on pessimism are actually unarticulated comments about optimism. She lived a philosophy of hope.
Helen Keller was not born a hero. She had potential and she became one, took her place as a hero—a celebrity—a well known person with power and influence. She possessed superior intelligence and didn’t waste it. She had wealth and she used it. She spent years in the company of an uncharacteristically faithful teacher and she put those years to very good use. As a deafblind person, she was a curiosity, a creature who could interest the public. She is my hero because she put all of this together and did extraordinary things. She attended dinner parties with powerful citizens. She wrote books. She addressed large crowds. She used these opportunities to work for charities and speak out on important issues. She was, in fact, a radical social activist.
When I was young, I thought I was alone in my rebellion against the lily-white saintly image of Helen Keller. In fact, I was not alone. I would later discover that many other people with disabilities were travelling my cynical path. Yet I have never met a person who could successfully present evidence to show that Helen was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill person. Nor have I encountered evidence that she was anything but an eternal optimist.
As such, she remains, in my estimation, a personal authority on the power of optimism, coupled with opportunity. If it is true, as she wrote, that pessimists don’t discover the secrets of the stars, or sail to uncharted lands, or open dorrs to the human spirit, might it be partly because they don’t have opportunities, and partly because they don’t do much with the opportunities they have?

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