If Helen Keller can be an optimist, so can you

Helen KellerHelen 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.

Helen Keller: All doers are optimists

Helen Keller“The desire and will to work is optimism itself,” writes Helen Keller in Optimism: An Essay (1903). “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”

In our world where the gray, 9-5 cubicle represents the antithesis of hope – the promise of dreary, monotonous, dull days to come – we seem to have lost the connection between optimism and work that Keller speaks of. So what was she talking about?

The desire and motivation to work, she says, are fueled by the fundamental belief that you can have an impact; that your efforts mean something and can change the world for the better. You can take fragments of ideas or materials and turn them into something orderly, meaningful.

“The optimist believes, attempts, achieves. He stands always in the sunlight,” she writes. “Some day the wonderful, the inexpressible, arrives and shines upon him, and he is there to welcome it. His soul meets his own and beats a glad march to every new discovery, every fresh victory over difficulties, every addition to human knowledge and happiness.”

Keller says that the doers of the world are all optimists. An example close to her heart: those brave teachers who first taught the deaf and blind proved to a doubtful public that it could be done. She herself would go on to become the first deaf-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, something previously unimaginable.

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit,” she writes.

And not only is a dedication to work optimistic, but it inspires optimism in those around us. Seeing others do good work reassures us that “the true and the good will stand sure.” Keller observes civilization moving forward thanks to the efforts of such heroic workers, but also the efforts of little guys like herself.

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task,” she writes. “But it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”

In my book, the ability to write such a poignant essay is already a great and noble task. Because the lesson is a profound one: when we become demotivated or unengaged in work, it means we’ve become pessimistic. For some reason, we no longer believe that we can change the world. Is it because we don’t think we’ll succeed? Or perhaps we’ve lost the passion for our company’s mission? Either way, we can shift from the difficult question of “Why aren’t I more motivated?” to the simpler question of “What am I pessimistic about?” – and then find a way to rekindle our optimism and step back into the “sunlight.”