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Women’s History Month: Revisiting Helen Keller

Thursday, March 22, 2012

As the curtain falls on Women’s History Month, there are so many impressive women who come to mind for their courage and compelling achievements in every conceivable field. But there is no one, man or woman, more impressive than Helen Keller (1880-1968). The name Helen Keller has always intrigued. Her story is well documented in film, plays, books and articles. For many, it may just be the greatest story ever told.


Succumbing to a “severe congestion of the brain and stomach,” Keller at the tender age of one was already blind, deaf and mute. At age four she was described as a creature, clawing and scratching, with only her olfactory and tactile senses responding to surrounding stimuli. A pause is due if only to contemplate such a dire condition.


Thanks to her supportive parents and the pedantic prowess of Ann Sullivan, Keller emerged from her tomb of mental darkness to become an historical figure widely acclaimed by statesmen such as Nehru and Eisenhower, literary giants such as Mark Twain, and the great scientist Albert Einstein. Her contribution to multiple social causes is well known, but her relevance to today’s society has not been fully explored. Her accomplishments were monumental.


She raised millions of dollars and championed initiatives for the disabled in an inimitable way. She was the first woman to receive an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University and the first woman to have touched the sacred bronze Buddha in Nara, Japan. She authored 14 books and countless articles. She graduated from Radcliff College in 1904, and she rose to become a public speaker with proficiency in French, German, Greek and Latin.


She was an activist for universal suffrage for women, and instrumental in the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union. Active in the National Socialist Party and an advocate for workers’ solidarity worldwide, Keller’s voice is being heard today—globally. Her social activism is mirrored today in the mantra of the “occupy” movement. Keller wrote: “The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land specu- lators and the exploiters of labour...”


In her famous call to strike against war delivered at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on January 5, 1916, she said: “Strike against all ordinances and laws and institutions that continue the slaughter of peace and the butcheries of war. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”


It was a rousing speech that rivalled or surpassed the best of to-day’s antiwar activists. Peaceniks and even hawks can only marvel at the poignancy of her argument and its importance in a world still torn by strife. Keller’s words have proven timeless, even prophetic. However, it was her ability to allow light in her world of darkness, to extract and prodigiously use an inner resource to surmount a potentially damning life sentence that I wish to examine.


Of her early condition, Keller described her mind as a tomb and her body as a dungeon. She knew only to eat, drink and sleep. It is a world of maddening and frightening darkness that none of us can fathom—a condition exacerbated by the tender age at which she was stricken. How Keller was able to learn, to apply the non-traditional methods used by Sullivan is no more important than why Keller was a remarkable success. This continues to in- trigue educational specialists, esotericists and laymen alike.


Keller was not the only deaf and blind child of her time. Others, like Laura Bridgman, became functional under the tutelage of Dr Samuel Howe, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind. But no one has surpassed, or may ever surpass, Keller. She must have possessed special abilities of learning, of conceptualising, and imagining. It is obvious that the rules of cognition did not apply in this case. In the vein of great artists, Keller said: “I observe, I feel, I think, I imagine.” Here, she observed not in the usual sense, but through the mind’s eye.


As I studied this remarkable personage, I realised the extent to which she applied fundamental spiritual laws or timeless truths. One of these is acceptance. Keller’s life would have come to naught if she did not first accept her disability as her own perfect state. The philosophical saying that we are all perfect the way we are, is so applicable in this case.


In other words, perfection is always a “state of becoming” and is never an ideal and static state. Hence, in embracing her “perfection,” Keller was able to unlock her fullest potential. This may seem difficult for many to understand. We buckle under far less onerous challenges. We question life’s coldness when we falter and are unable to get our way. But Keller railed against the martyr complex of self-pity and victimhood, most times pedalled to fulfil some psychological need. She referred to it as an enemy that curtails our ability to contribute to the world. She insisted that blindness had no limiting effect on her mental vision, and that her “intellectual horizon was infinitely wide.”


Another law so consistently applied by Keller was that of gratitude. Being grateful for the lot we have been served is the first step in our creative journey, a journey that can be full of abundance, according to Keller. She was big on gratitude. Her humility and graciousness were well known. Hers was a theology of thanks. In thankfulness for life, she was bestowed with its greatest rewards: service and an inner peace.


She wrote: “For three things I thank God every day of my life—that He has vouchsafed my knowledge of His works, deep thanks that He has set in my darkness the lamp of my faith, deep, deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to...” Her words were instructively philosophical. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” she used to say. Keller transcended the literalist. A paragon of existentialism, she weaved and created from the perceived nothingness of the dark. In so doing, she gave credence to the belief that “God is within.” She was a woman of simple values with unmatched ontological depth. For sure, Keller’s life begged the questions: “Who are we?” and “What is the limit of our potential?”


Today, we can learn so much from this incredible woman. The young, and not so young, are in sore need of heroes of this calibre. Her life is a prayerful reminder, an enduring lesson for every facet of personal, social and political life—a reminder against self-pity, dependency, entitlements, shiftlessness and indolence. And on a purely epistemolo- gical level, she has changed the discourse on learning and the human potential. Truly, it is the greatest story ever told.


• Dr Glenville Ashby is the New York correspondent for the Guardian


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