Helen Keller on the Shape of Healthy Optimism

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e2-9ecf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Helen Keller. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

A few days ago, as I was taking an afternoon walk around my house, I struck up a conversation with a young man of magnetic warmth. He was busy cleaning the swimming pool at the community center of my housing complex. His shirt was white with tiny holes around his neck, his skin was brown, and his shiny black hair was unkempt. I did not remember how we began the conversation, but I remember he said that he has to pay for his own college tuition with the money he gets from this cleaning job and other jobs he has. Since his father died of cancer years ago, he becomes the sole financial supporter of the family. He has bills to pay, a little brother and a sick mother to care for, and of course, dreams to pursue.

These unforgiving circumstances don’t make him jaded or scared. That’s what he told me as he scrubbed the edges of the pool. He sees all of these as adventures. He acknowledges the harsh reality he inhabits and he chooses to be hopeful. This is a man who has steadied his nerves, and knows he has a lot of work to do and would bear anything to get it done.

I like hearing story like this because it shows me that hope has the power to propel ourselves forward in life. Hope can get us out of the grim days of living. His story instantly reminds me of a book of essays titled Optimism by Helen Keller. She’s one of the most hopeful humans I have ever known. This book is her personal reflection on how to be hopeful and undefeated by hardship.

Keller was born a healthy child in 1880, but then a mysterious illness (perhaps rubella or scarlet fever) made the nineteen months old Keller deaf and blind. This strange illness made her a rebel and unruly, until a young woman named Anne Mansfield Sullivan, the 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, came into her life as her teacher. Sullivan was Keller’s champion and the reason why Keller becomes the woman we admire today, even decades after she died. Without the unconditional love and support of Sullivan, Keller would have lived and died miserably in a small town in Alabama. With her, Keller was able to taste the sweetness of hope and experience moments of joy and meaning. 

My favorite part of this book is when Keller writes about “the rash optimism.” This rash optimism, according to Keller, is false optimism because it blinds us from seeing the reality at every turn. It doesn’t want to acknowledge the messiness of life, and is more like wishing that everything will turn out just fine without doing ‘the work.’ This kind of optimism is very passive and won’t solve any problem we have.

What Keller suggests is optimism that reveres truth and hard work. This is the healthiest kind of optimism that she can think of. This optimism uses darkness as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase strength and perseverance.

She writes:

“It’s a mistake always to contemplate the good and ignore the evil, because by making people neglectful it lets in disaster. There is a dangerous optimism of ignorance and indifference. It’s not enough to say that the twentieth century is the best age in the history of mankind, and to take refuge from the evils of the world in skyey dreams of good. How many good men, prosperous and contented, looked around and saw naught but good, while millions of their fellowmen were bartered and sold like cattle! No doubt, there were comfortable optimists who thought Wilberforce a meddle some fanatic when he was working with might and main to free the slaves.
I distrust the rash optimism in this country that cries, “Hurrah, we’re all right! This is the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call loudly for redress. That’s false optimism. Optimism that doesn’t count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.”
nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e2-9ec6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Miss Keller at Work in Her Study. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Keller achieves this lush and firm perspective on optimism not from her ignorance of the existence of evil, but from her supreme awareness of its existence. From this awareness, she decides to take what pains the world and uses the pain to grow her sense of optimism.

She writes:

“I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, doesn’t rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, make the Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good, but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.”

To live with a sincere hope in this age of constant cynicism is not only rewarding, but it is the best kind of life we have to pursue. May Keller’s spirit of optimism help us get through the dark days of living.

Kartini and The Question of “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”

 

kartini

Kartini, in the middle, with her younge sister Kardinah, and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (Dereisnaar)

 

One of the most interesting people that I know is R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879- September 17, 1904), a young ambitious and brilliant Javanese woman who contributed and shaped Indonesian history, especially in the early twentieth century, because of her relentless dedication to elevate the status of women in her society.

Kartini was born into a high-class family in a small town on the north coast of Java island. Despite the immense privilege that her family possessed, her time was hard and challenging. It was the time when women’s status was reduced to a fertile uterus and kitchen. The effects of Dutch colonization were deeply inhuman and evoking a sense of opposition in her spirit. Moreover, Kartini was uneasy with the way the Javanese behaved. They were lazy and only glorified prayers and spirit offerings to improve their conditions of life. Perhaps, the most devastating thing that happened to her life was when she had to be withdrawn from her school by her family to obey to her Javanese tradition. Around this time, girls of high nobility family, were excluded from outsiders to prepare them for an early arranged marriage.

These things made her heart broken. She turned to reading as an escape from her bleak reality and a way to stimulate her curiosity. Not only was she a voracious reader, but she’s also a prolific letter writer. Kartini wrote letters to unpack everything she observed, both in her internal and external life, mostly to her Dutch friends, in Dutch. After she died, her letters were posthumously compiled and published in a book titled “Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light)” in 1911, and then later translated in English by Agnes Louise Symmers as “Letters of a Javanese Princess.”

IMG_2043

My left hand holding “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

In the book, there is one letter that was written to her friend, Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, in 1900, that has left a profound mark on my mind.

The letter begins with a story of Kartini who asked her Dutch friend named Letsy to play with her at recess. Letsy, who at the time was reading a book, politely declined the invitation because she had to study the book in preparation for an exam. She did not want to fail the exam, and she said that she had to be smart because one day she’d like to be a teacher. When Letsy curiously asked Kartini what she would like to be in the future, Kartini innocently replied, “I don’t know.” The question startled her. Kartini stood in disbelief, unable to articulate her answer. It was a strange question for her because nobody had asked her this question before. And perhaps, devastatingly, she lived in an era when her society did not believe that women were capable of thinking and dreaming big.

Right after Kartini was asked the question, she sprinted to her house, still haunted by Letsy’s question. When her brother frankly told her that she’d naturally be a Raden Ayu in the future (a Javanese married woman of high rank), Kartini realized that her fate was already shaped by her society without her will. Being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent.

Though she eventually married to a man that was carefully chosen for her, Kartini refused to live her life like most of Javanese married women who were submissive and expressionless. The older she got, the more passionate she became with the issues of women’s rights. Even, she erected a small school for young girls with her sisters. She was not only a teacher who taught them writing, reading, handiwork, cooking, and art, but also, she became their mother who taught them about love and life.

A century after she died, even when Indonesia has become more modernized than her time, some of us still think that this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is challenging. It’s a big question, but at its core, it invites us to define our own dreams vividly.

Defining our dreams means refusing our parents, lovers, neighbors, and even politicians to shape them. Defining our own dreams means avoiding shallow work and embracing any future obstacles as a learning process. This also means planting ourselves in the soil of optimism and solid work.

James Baldwin, an American writer once said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”  Just like Baldwin, Kartini refused to let her world to define and dictate her dreams. She told her world how she and other women would like to be treated. She didn’t live in somebody else’s dreams. She made her own dreams.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Embracing Our Unsolved Questions

 

rilke-young-balthus-baladine-1024x749

Rainer Maria Rilke (far left) and young Balthus and his mother, Baladine Klossowska. Via: (Artnet)

 

To be alive is to inquire. We ask questions to find answers. However, there are times when we can’t find the answers to the questions we raise. The questions seem overwhelming that we can’t dismantle them, and even make an attempt to answer them. Moreover, in this age of constant gratification, and information overload, it seems so amusing and appalling to have our questions unsolved. Then what’s the most graceful way to behave when we have unsolved questions? What do we do with them?

One of my favorite thinkers and poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), knows exactly what one must do with his or her unsolved questions. In a heartfelt letter dated from July 16th 1903, Rilke, already a famous poet, consoled Franz Kappus, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet, who seemed to be eaten alive by his own immense unsolved existential questions.

Found in book titled Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke replies his letter beautifully:

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it–but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.”

I hope that Rilke’s letter to Kappus can be a wise reminder for us to always “live the questions” without any hesitation. Knowing how to be calm with our unsolved questions is, I believe, a path to become more grounded and wiser human being.