Helen Keller on Optimism
By Maria Popova
Decades before the dawn of the positive psychology movement and a century before what neuroscience has taught us about the benefits of optimism, Helen Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968) — the remarkable woman who grew up without sight and hearing until, with the help of her teacher Annie Sullivan, she learned to speak, read, write, and inhabit the life of the mind with such grace and fierceness that made her one of history’s most inspired intellectual heroes — penned a timeless treatise on optimism as a philosophy of life. Simply titled Optimism (public library | free ebook), it was originally published in 1903 and written — a moment of pause here — after Keller learned to write on a grooved board over a sheet of paper, using the grooves and the end of her index pencil to guide her writing.
She opens the first half of the book, Optimism Within, by reflecting on the universal quest for happiness, that alluring and often elusive art-science at the heart of all human aspiration:
Could we choose our environment, and were desire in human undertakings synonymous with endowment, all men would, I suppose, be optimists. 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.
Recounting her own miraculous blossoming from the inner captivity of a deaf-mute to the intellectual height of a cultural luminary, she brings exquisite earnestness to this rhetorical question:
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. … Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?
My early experience was thus a leap from bad to good. If I tried, I could not check the momentum of my first leap out of the dark; to move breast forward as a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of release and rush into the light. With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope.
Still, Keller is careful to distinguish between intelligent and reckless optimism:
Optimism that does not count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.
Reflecting once again on her own experience, she argues that, much like the habits of mind William James advocated for as the secret of life, optimism is a choice:
I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.
I demand that the world be good, and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true. To what good I open the doors of my being, and jealously shut them against what is bad. Such is the force of this beautiful and willful conviction, it carries itself in the face of all opposition. I am never discouraged by absence of good. I never can be argued into hopelessness. Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.
Like Isabel Allende, who sees creativity as order to the chaos of life, Keller riffs on Carlyle and argues for creative enterprise as a source of optimism:
Work, production, brings life out of chaos, makes the individual a world, an order; and order is optimism.
And yet she is sure to caution against the cult of productivity, a reminder all the timelier today as we often squander presence in favor of productivity, and uses Darwin’s famed daily routine to make her point:
Darwin could work only half an hour at a time; yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy. 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.
She sees optimism, like Italo Calvino did literature, as a collective enterprise:
I love the good that others do; for their activity is an assurance that whether I can help or not, the true and the good will stand sure.
Though her tone at times may appear to be overly religious on the surface, Keller’s skew is rather philosophical, demonstrating that, not unlike science has a spiritual quality, optimism is a kind of secular religion:
I trust, and nothing that happens disturbs my trust. I recognize the beneficence of the power which we all worship as supreme — Order, Fate, the Great Spirit, Nature, God. I recognize this power in the sun that makes all things grow and keeps life afoot. I make a friend of this indefinable force, and straightway I feel glad, brave and ready for any lot Heaven may decree for me. This is my religion of optimism.
Deep, solemn optimism, it seems to me, should spring from this firm belief in the presence of God in the individual; not a remote, unapproachable governor of the universe, but a God who is very near every one of us, who is present not only in earth, sea and sky, but also in every pure and noble impulse of our hearts, “the source and centre of all minds, their only point of rest.”
In the second half of the book, Optimism Without, she makes an eloquent addition to these notable definitions of philosophy and touches on the ancient quandary of whether what we perceive as external reality might be an illusion:
Philosophy is the history of a deaf-blind person writ large. From the talks of Socrates up through Plato, Berkeley and Kant, philosophy records the efforts of human intelligence to be free of the clogging material world and fly forth into a universe of pure idea. A deaf-blind person ought to find special meaning in Plato’s Ideal World. These things which you see and hear and touch are not the reality of realities, but imperfect manifestations of the Idea, the Principal, the Spiritual; the Idea is the truth, the rest is delusion.
Much like legendary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky advised the young to learn to enjoy their own company, Keller argues for philosophy as the gateway to finding richness in life without leaving one’s self — an art all the more important in the age of living alone. She writes:
My brethren who enjoy the fullest use of the senses are not aware of any reality which may not equally well be in reach of my mind. Philosophy gives to the mind the prerogative of seeing truth, and bears us not a realm where I, who am blind, and not different from you who see. … It seemed to me that philosophy had been written for my special consolation, whereby I get even with some modern philosophers who apparently think that I was intended as an experimental case for their special instruction! But in a little measure my small voice of individual experience does join in the declaration of philosophy that the good is the only world, and that world is a world of spirit. It is also a universe where order is All, where an unbroken logic holds the parts together, where distance defines itself as non-existence, where evil, as St. Augustine held, is delusion, and therefore is not. The meaning of philosophy to me is not only its principles, but also in the happy isolation of its great expounders. They were seldom of the world, even when like Plato and Leibnitz they moved in its courts and drawing rooms. To the tumult of life they were deaf, and they were blind to its distraction and perplexing diversities. Sitting alone, but not in darkness, they learned to find everything in themselves…
In a sentiment Neil deGrasse Tyson would come to echo more than a century later in his articulate case for why our smallness amidst the cosmos should be a source of assurance rather than anxiety, Keller observes:
Thus from the philosophy I learn that we see only shadows and know only in part, and that all things change; but the mind, the unconquerable mind, compasses all truth, embraces the universe as it is, converts the shadows to realities and makes tumultuous changes seem but moments in an eternal silence, or short lines in the infinite theme of perfection, and the evil but “a halt on the way to good.” Though with my hand I grasp only a small part of the universe, with my spirit I see the whole, and in my thought I can compass the beneficent laws by which it is governed. The confidence and trust which these conceptions inspire teach me to rest safe in my life as in a fate, and protect me from spectral doubts and fears.
Keller argues of America as a mecca of optimism. And yet, as hearteningly patriotic as her case may be, a look at the present state of the plight of marriage equality, the gaping wound of income inequality, and the indignity of immigrants’ struggles (of whom I am one) reveals how much further we have to go to live up to this optimistic ideal:
It is true, America has devoted herself largely to the solution of material problems — breaking the fields, opening mines, irrigating the deserts, spanning the continent with railroads; but she is doing these things in a new way, by educating her people, by placing at the service of every man’s need every resource of human skill. She is transmuting her industrial wealth into the education of her workmen, so that unskilled people shall have no place in American life, so that all men shall bring mind and soul to the control of matter. Her children are not drudges and slaves. The Constitution has declared it, and the spirit of our institutions has confirmed it. The best the land can teach them they shall know. They shall learn that there is no upper class in their country, and no lower, and they shall understand how it is that God and His world are for everybody.
America might do all this, and still be selfish, still be a worshipper of Mammon. But America is the home of charity as well as commerce. … Who shall measure the sympathy, skill and intelligence with which she ministers to all who come to her, and lessens the ever-swelling tide of poverty, misery and degradation which every year rolls against her gates from all the nations? When I reflect on all these facts, I cannot but think that, Tolstoi and other theorists to the contrary, it is a splendid thing to be an American. In America the optimist finds abundant reason for confidence in the present and hope for the future, and this hope, this confidence, may well extend over all the great nations of the earth.
Further on, she adds, “It is significant that the foundation of that law is optimistic” — and yet what more pessimistic a law than an immigration policy based on the assumption that if left to their own devices, more immigrants would do harm than would do good, what sadder than a policy built on the belief that affording love the freedom of equality would result in destruction rather than dignity?
Still, some of Keller’s seemingly over-optimistic contentions have been since confirmed by modern science — for instance, the decline of violence, which she rightly observes:
If we compare our own time with the past, we find in modern statistics a solid foundation for a confident and buoyant world-optimism. Beneath the doubt, the unrest, the materialism, which surround us still glows and burns at the world’s best life a steadfast faith.
During the past fifty years crime has decreased. True, the records of to-day contain a longer list of crime. But our statistics are more complete and accurate than the statistics of times past. Besides, there are many offenses on the list which half a century ago would not have been thought of as crimes. This shows that the public conscience is more sensitive than it ever was.
Our definition of crime has grown stricter,* our punishment of it more lenient and intelligent. The old feeling of revenge has largely disappeared. It is no longer an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The criminal is treated as one who is diseased. He is confined not merely for punishment, but because he is a menace to society. While he is under restraint, he is treated with human care and disciplined so that his mind shall be cured of its disease, and he shall be restored to society able to do his part of its work.
* Though this may be mostly true on a theoretical level, practical disgraces to democracy like the epidemic of rape in the military offer a tragic counterpoint.
In reflecting on the relationship between education and the good life, Keller argues for the broadening of education from an industrial model of rote memorization to fostering “scholars who can link the unlinkable”. Though this ideal, too, is a long way from reality today, Keller’s words shine as a timeless guiding light to aspire toward:
Education broadens to include all men, and deepens to teach all truths. Scholars are no longer confined to Greek, Latin and mathematics, but they also study science converts the dreams of the poet, the theory of the mathematician and the fiction of the economist into ships, hospitals and instruments that enable one skilled hand to perform the work of a thousand. The student of to-day is not asked if he has learned his grammar. Is he a mere grammar machine, a dry catalogue of scientific facts, or has he acquired the qualities of manliness? His supreme lesson is to grapple with great public questions, to keep his mind hospitable to new idea and new views of truth, to restore the finer ideals that are lost sight of in the struggle for wealth and to promote justice between man and man. He learns that there may be substitutes for human labor — horse-power and machinery and books; but “there are no substitutes for common sense, patience, integrity, courage.”
In a sentiment philosopher Judith Butler would come to second in her fantastic recent commencement address on the value of the humanities as a tool of empathy, Keller argues:
The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of courage — the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men think. No loss by flood and lightening, no destruction of cities and temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many noble lives and impulses as those which his tolerance has destroyed.
“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light,” Stanley Kubrick memorably asserted, and it’s hard not to see in his words an echo of Keller’s legacy. She presages the kernel of Martin Seligman’s seminal concept of learned optimism and writes:
The test of all beliefs is their practical effect in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. … Life is a fair field, and the right will prosper if we stand by our guns.
Let pessimism once take hold of the mind, and life is all topsy-turvy, all vanity and vexation of spirit. … 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. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation.
In the final and most practical part of the book, The Practice of Optimism, Keller urges:
Who shall dare let his incapacity for hope or goodness cast a shadow upon the courage of those who bear their burdens as if they were privileges? The optimist cannot fall back, cannot falter; for he knows his neighbor will be hindered by his failure to keep in line. He will therefore hold his place fearlessly and remember the duty of silence. Sufficient unto each heart is its own sorrow. He will take the iron claws of circumstance in his hand and use them as tools to break away the obstacle that block his path. He will work as if upon him alone depended the establishment of heaven and earth.
She once again return to the notion of optimism as a collective good rather than merely an individual choice, even a national asset:
Every optimist moves along with progress and hastens it, while every pessimist would keep the worlds at a standstill. The consequence of pessimism in the life of a nation is the same as in the life of the individual. Pessimism kills the instinct that urges men to struggle against poverty, ignorance and crime, and dries up all the fountains of joy in the world.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.
In an ever-timelier remark in our age of fear-mongering sensationalism in the news — a remark E. B. White would come to second decades later in arguing that a writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down” — Keller points to the responsibility of the press in upholding its share of this collective enterprise:
Our newspapers should remember this. The press is the pulpit of the modern world, and on the preachers who fill it much depends. If the protest of the press against unrighteous measures is to avail, then for ninety nine days the word of the preacher should be buoyant and of good cheer, so that on the hundredth day the voice of censure may be a hundred times strong.
Keller ends on a note of inextinguishable faith in the human spirit and timeless hope for the future of our world:
As I stand in the sunshine if a sincere and earnest optimism, my imagination “paints yet more glorious triumphs on the cloud-curtain of the future.” Out of the fierce struggle and turmoil of contending systems and powers I see a brighter spiritual era slowly emerge —an era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor…
Pair Optimism — which is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg — with these 7 heartening reads on the subject, then revisit Keller’s stirring first experience of dance and her memorable meeting with Mark Twain, who later became her creative champion and confidante.
Published June 21, 2013