Helen Keller was born with sight and hearing just like many of us. But at the age of 19 months, an illness robbed her of them. For the next five and a half years, she lived in a darkness only pierced by a few gestures she used to communicate with her family.
When she was 7, Keller was visited by Anne Sullivan, who became her governess and brought light and understanding into her world through words spelled into her palms.
“Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act, and attain heaven,” she writes in Optimism: An Essay. “My life was without past or future; death, the pessimist would say, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished.’ But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought, and love and joy and hope came up in a passion of obedience to knowledge. Can anyone who has escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?”
We witness this phenomenon so often in our daily lives: after being deprived of something, we appreciate it more. Sickness makes us treasure health; fearing for the life of a loved one makes us treasure them. After my father’s brush with cancer, he told me that the little things didn’t matter anymore. So, too, does Keller urge blind people to focus on the fundamentals: love, goodness, hope, and truth, which are no less accessible to the blind.
But this doesn’t explain the fullness of Keller’s optimism; after all, she didn’t regain her sight and hearing, she simply learned the ability to communicate. She still lived a life in blackness, without hearing the voices around her or seeing the bloom of spring.
“I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep,” she writes. “If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life – if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.”
And her optimism is this: a philosophy of happiness. She sees goodness in herself and in the world, and she believes that we can use our minds to overcome the suffering and hardship. We even have a duty to be optimists, she says, because this is the creed that will propel us to get things done and inspire those around us.
“If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair,” she writes.
Optimism is a choice. Our alternative may not be quite so dark as Keller’s, but it’s similar: we sometimes seek in vain for the success that eludes us, or the perfect health that fails us, or the love that evades us. But being satisfied with what we have is the road to all we want – success, health, and love.
“Woe, indeed, is the heritage of those who walk sad-thoughted and downcast through this radiant, soul-delighting earth, blind to its beauty and deaf to its music,” writes Keller. Though she is blind and deaf, she isn’t blind to the world’s figurative beauty nor deaf to its figurative music. And if she can overcome her adversity, so can we.