Helen Keller on the Shape of Healthy Optimism

 

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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.”
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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.