Publisher’s Point: Helen Keller On Optimism

7-6-2013 11-21-32 AMIvy Green, located in Tuscumbia, is the birthplace of Helen Keller, and one of Alabama’s state treasures. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and I never get tired of either going by myself or taking guests, which I did the last weekend of June. The Helen Keller Festival is held in June and July, where there is a parade, and sold out performances of William Gibson’s famous play about Helen called The Miracle Worker. Ivy Green stays open later, and the whole community gets involved in making the festival a success, from organizing the parking, to ushering at the play, to acting, to running the concession stand.

7-6-2013 11-21-44 AM I have seen all of the versions of the movie several times, studied the production notes, facilitated a presentation of the 1961 version of the film at ASU’s Center for Lifelong Learning Classic Film Series, have attended live presentations of The Miracle Worker in Issaquah, WA, and most recently, in Tuscumbia, and yet, I don’t expect that I shall ever truly plumb the depths of the impact of the lives it portrays.

One of my guests, who was deeply moved from the moment she walked into the Keller house, recently sent me this quote from Helen’s book published in 1903, the year before she graduated from Radcliffe. The book is called Optimism, and says the following: “…I long to accomplish a great and noble task; 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.”

How in the world does one “rejoice that others can do what I cannot?” I only have one answer, and that is the specific working of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Everything about such a philosophy assaults our over inflated sense of self-importance and personal destiny, and it needs to, or we can kiss our country goodbye.

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task…” For openers, she graduated from Radcliffe, and was the first deaf and blind person to do so (with the help of Annie Sullivan, who attended all her classes and signed the lectures into her hands.) I wonder, if Optimism was published in what would have been her junior year, did she have doubts about graduating, and did this the prospect of successfully completing her studies fit into her goal of “a great and noble task?” She wrote over 14 books, traveled the world, learned how to speak, was in the presence of nobles, rulers and Presidents, inspired millions, and I wonder if at the end of the day her perception was that any of those accomplishments qualified as “a great and noble task?”

In the last few years it has come to light that Helen even fell in love, and accepted a proposal of marriage. Her mother put a stop to the wedding after reading the announcement of the upcoming nuptials in the newspaper of Helen’s deceased father. Yet, Helen went on, and she lived an extraordinary life without being loved in ways that so many of us take for granted. Was that the “great and noble task?” To learn to live a full life without a mate with which to share it?

Helen also said that “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” I think if we would choose to see life as Helen did, we may indeed have more optimism, and perhaps accomplish our own “great and noble tasks.”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

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