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Helen Keller: A Bright Light in the 20th Century


"I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness."

In April 1887, just a few weeks after Anne Sullivan was hired to teach the blind and deaf seven-year-old Helen Keller, the miracle occurred: the young girl associated water with the letters w-a-t-e-r that were spelled into her hand. From that day forward, Keller never stopped learning. A Radcliffe College graduate and the author of numerous books, including several autobiographies, Keller spent much of her life advocating for women’s rights, pacifism, and the rights of the handicapped. She took a stand against World War I and supported controversial groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade. During World War II she brought inspiration to the bedsides of veterans who had lost their sight or hearing in battle, and fought to make Braille the standard printed communication for the blind. She lectured widely, and often spoke of the wonder and beauty of life. She wrote the following in the late 1920s.

     There is something divine in the art which some human beings possess to shape life for themselves, no matter what the outward circumstances may be. That is the power of the Celestial Artist, the Will, to find life worth living, despite the handicap imposed. I have for many years endeavored to make this vital truth clear; and still people marvel when I tell them that I am happy. They imagine that my limitations weigh heavily upon my spirit, and chain me to the rock of my despair. Yet, it seems to me, happiness has very little to do with the senses. If we make up our minds that this is a drab and purposeless universe, it will be that, and nothing else. On the other hand, if we believe that the earth is ours, and that the sun and moon hang in the sky for our delight, there will be joy upon the hills and gladness in the fields because the Artist in our souls glorifies creation. Surely, it gives dignity to life to believe that we are born into this world for noble ends, and that we have a higher destiny than can be accomplished within the narrow limits of this physical life.

     "I can understand," I hear someone interrupting me, "that you enjoy flowers and sunshine and that sort of thing, but when you sit by yourself in that little study on the top of the house all day, aren’t you dreadfully bored? You can’t see a bit of color from your window, or hear a sound! Aren’t the days and the hours all alike to you?" Never! My days are all different, and no hour is quite like another.

     Through my sense of touch I am keenly alive to all changes and movements of the atmosphere, and I am sure the days carry for me as much as they do for my friend who observes the skies — often not caring about their beauty, but only to see if it is going to rain. There are days when the sun pours into my study, and I feel all of life’s joys crowded into each beam. There are rainy days when a sort of shade clings about me and lays a cool hand upon my face, and the smell of the moist earth and damp objects lingers everywhere. . . . There is the hour when the morning sun kisses me awake, and the hour when the burden of material things drops from my shoulder, and I drift to Slumberland. There are hours of breathless haste to catch up with the letters that cover my desk, hours of glad expectancy when a beautiful dream seems about to come true, hours fragrant with tender memories; and always there are the endless varied hours I spend with the thinkers and poets and philosophers of all times! How can there be a full moment when my books are all about me! . . .

     Limitations drive one inward for diversion, with the result that one’s own thoughts become absorbingly interesting. The small events of daily life take on extraordinary importance when the Celestial Artist combines them with the spiritual elements in the laboratory of mind. It is a miracle how an incident of no particular value comes out of the mental crucible beautiful and precious. Little by little the transformation and classification of ideas take place in the brain, where are registered the beings and the events which give delight to circumscribed lives. Stored in the memory, they furnish plentiful entertainment for solitary hours; and that is why I never feel "deaf blind." I left that horrible abyss of hopelessness long, long ago.

From Imagine, The Spirit of 20th Century American Heroes, edited Gina Misiroglu. Copyright 1999 by New World Library. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $29.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 Ext.52 or click here.