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.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Embracing Our Unsolved Questions

 

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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.

The Art of Inwardness: Rilke on The Benefits of Solitude for Creative Work

 

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Rainer Maria Rilke. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Solitude seems central as a prerequisite for creative mastery, especially for some of the greatest minds in the world. When the insanely talented Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, was asked for a piece of advice for young people, he said that they should  learn to cherish solitude and enjoy their own company. He said, “…people who grow bored in their company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.” Besides Tarkovsky, Charles Dickens lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude–a state that enabled him to produce his everlasting books. During ideation, he would take three-hour walks every afternoon alone, and what he observed during those walks would give ideas for his writing.

Another writer who had tasted the sweetness of solitude for his creativity was a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). In one of his letters that was published in a book called Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote back a letter to an amateur poet and an avid fan of his named Franz Xaver Kappus in response to a request for poetry advice and of course, life advice.

Franz Xaver Kappus, showing through the many descriptions that Rilke drew in this letter, was a restless but a passionate aspiring poet. He had sent his poems to magazines and only to find them terribly rejected. Feeling shattered about his shaky future of becoming a poet, he knew that only his idol, Rilke, was the only person capable of elevating his broken spirit and giving constructive feedback for his poems. Rilke wrote back to Kappus urging him to create “a moment of stillness” to answer some of the most pressing issues in his life, especially whether he should become a poet. This letter was not only a letter of encouragement and kindness, but it’s a work of art filled with strong metaphors and poetic sensibilities.
Rilke writes:

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.”

It’s easy to think of solitude as being alone. However, Rilke doesn’t define solitude as merely just being alone, but solitude to his mind is concentrating to what one feels, in oneself, and in the midst of the crowd. It’s also being unafraid to slow down and ask ourselves what are the things that matter and don’t.

He continues:

“Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.”

He re-emphasizes the value of “going into oneself” in the last few paragraphs of the letter:

“After all I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.”

There are other more soul-stirring letters in this book. Letter to a Young Poet is truly one of the most spectacular books I have read so far.