Eyes Wide Shut

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. – Helen Keller

The story of Helen Keller is the story of the triumph of the human spirit.

When she was only nineteen months old, Helen contracted a mysterious illness that left her without sight and hearing. She gradually adapted to her silent and dark world, and forgot that it had ever been different. But as she aged, bitterness preyed on her. The desire to communicate and express herself eventually turned into desperate outbursts.

Helen’s mother sought help for her after being inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of a deaf and blind child. After months of effort, Helen’s parents were given comfort by the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston that a teacher had been found for their daughter.

On March 3, 1887, three months before Helen’s seventh birthday, twenty-year-old Anne Sullivan arrived at their Alabama home for the first time. For Helen, it was the most important day of her life. She was no longer without hope. Anne, who was herself visually impaired, became Helen’s teacher and companion for the next 49 years.

From Helen’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, in which she recalls many incidents from her early childhood:

“We walked down to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the sprout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness, a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.”

From that fateful summer onwards, Helen rose above the physical and material conditions that surrounded her. With Anne’s help, she became independent of physical sight and hearing.

Helen describes this breakthrough experience, “Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in… 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. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven.”

Helen mastered braille and used it to learn German and French. She persisted in using her lips and voice, and subsequently learned to speak. She was admitted to Radcliffe College and became the first deaf-blind American to earn a bachelor’s degree. She would go on to write twelve books and several articles on social issues. According to blogger Maria Popova, Helen blossomed from the inner captivity of a deaf-blind person to the intellectual height of a cultural luminary.

Mark Twain, who had forged a unique intellectual relationship with her, wrote: “She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”

Helen had cultivated a sense of kinship with the rest of the world and graciously embraced life. Everything around her breathed of love and joy, and was full of meaning. She called this inherited capacity a “sort of sixth sense—a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”

In her 1903 book, Optimism, Helen draws on her life to reflect on the universal quest for happiness:

“Certainly most of us regard happiness as the proper end of all earthly enterprise. The will to be happy animates alike the philosopher, the prince and the chimney-sweep. No matter how dull, or how mean, or how wise a man is, he feels that happiness is his indisputable right… Most people measure their happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they could be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep. 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…”

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