Purpose Found in the Dark
Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Tragedy befalls us all. Suffering is one promise life always keeps. There are times when we don’t see how the sun could possibly shine again. I would like to share the story of two women, whose experiences give us insight into how to move toward a brighter future when we find ourselves in desperate circumstances. Their lives give us hope that we can find happiness and purpose despite, and sometimes even because of, our adversity. Light can be found in the midst darkness.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”*
Sacrifice of Comfort and Well-Earned Self-Pity
As a young girl, Anne Sullivan was already well-acquainted with grief. At age five she contracted a painful eye infection which took most of her sight. Her mother died leaving her with her abusive father. Her father soon abandoned her and her brother to an overcrowded and filthy almshouse where her younger brother soon died. She said her experience at Tewksbury Almshouse left her seeing life as “primarily cruel and bitter.” She became prone to violent outbursts and terrors. Through stubborn persistence she gained admittance to school but became a defiant student and was nicknamed Miss Spitfire. Despite her hardships and temper, she graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind as class valedictorian. She was soon recommended as the teacher to an exceptionally difficult six-year-old girl in Alabama, Helen Keller.
Helen had been just 18 months old when she contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf. She faced a lifetime of darkness, silence, and isolation. Despite a loving family and remarkable intelligence, Helen became extremely frustrated and violent due to her inability to make sense of her surroundings. She behaved “like a wild animal” and her parents were at a loss of how to handle her. Anne Sullivan was to be her savior, but not without great sacrifice.
In this clip from The Miracle Worker, you will see the stubbornness of both teacher and student brilliantly portrayed. Anne was no pushover; she knew what had to be done – she had to get Helen to understand the concept of language. She knew Helen would live life wandering aimlessly in the dark until she came to that realization. Anne was willing to do whatever it took so Helen could gain that understanding. (Clip 2:30)
Anne’s efforts to tame this wild child were met with opposition from Helen’s indulgent parents and physical violence from Helen. Because of Anne’s own stubborn and aggressive nature she understood Helen and she had the temperament to do what it took. It was not a pleasant experience at the beginning. Helen “hit, pinched and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth. [Anne] finally gained control by moving with [Helen] into a small cottage on the Kellers’ property.” Anne’s daily efforts to teach Helen were met with anger and misunderstanding from an unruly and ungrateful child. Anne likely ended her days feeling unrewarded and unappreciated, yet she persevered. Anne later said, “People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved. ” Anne was willing to sacrifice her comfort, she was willing to be mistreated and unloved, because of the potential she saw in Helen.
But the young Helen also had to sacrifice. She had a very well-earned victim card. She had an inexhaustible list of justified excuses, bitterness, and anger. No one would have blamed her for achieving very little. She could have continued roaming the rooms, grunting and eating off strangers plates – that was the easier and understandable path. But eventually Helen choose instead to see hope and purpose in the darkness and silence of her life. “I have made my limitations tools of learning and true joy.”
These women did not ask what was fair or what they were owed; instead they began to climb out of darkness. How could Anne find trust and love when her life had only been suffering and neglect? How could Helen make sense of the world when all she experienced was unintelligible? They saw a purpose greater than their own momentary desires and they ultimately found happiness and peace in that pursuit. “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” For both women, the alternative to their sacrifices only led to more misery and suffering. Their path of sacrifice was difficult and required a transformation of their weaknesses into strengths. Their shared stubborn, aggressive, and disagreeable natures – developed in their suffering – had to be purposefully harnessed and refined to achieve true greatness. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Proper Love Exemplified
“When Queen Victoria of England pinned one of England’s highest awards on Helen Keller, she asked [her], ‘How do you account for your remarkable accomplishment in life? How do you explain the fact that even though you were both blind and deaf, you were able to accomplish so much?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, Helen Keller said, “If it had not been for Anne Sullivan, the name of Helen Keller would have remained unknown.’” (Vital Speeches of the Day, p. 42).
Anne Sullivan, “Miss Spitfire”, with her definite and contrary nature, was able to reveal the true Helen Keller; she helped her transcend the willful and uncooperative child and become the inspiration of millions. Anne did not pity Helen; she did not accept her weaknesses because of her hardships. She “willed the good” of Helen more than her own, or Helen’s, momentary comfort. This scene of Anne attempting to train Helen to use good table manners shows her determination and dedication to getting the “good” out of Helen. (Clip 6:12)
What is love? Love is compassion and acceptance. But love is much more than just this. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing the good of the other”. Love is the ability to look inside a tormented soul and see the possibilities to be found there – the potential for goodness, and happiness, and strength. Today’s mantras are “You are perfect just the way you are”, “Don’t change for anyone”, “Happiness is the goal”. There is some truth in these words, but there is much greater truth to be found outside of them. If we are willing to leave the world self-esteem and enjoyment and push into the darkness and uncertainty of our own discomfort, we may find a love and strength much more powerful than mere acceptance. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Anne Sullivan didn’t accept Helen Keller as-is. She saw her aggression, her disobedience, her willfulness, as impediments to achieving a brilliant potential. Dr. Jordan Peterson recently shared the perspective he took as a psychotherapist, and one we may take towards those we “love”, “(Famous psychologist Carl) Rogers said you have to have unconditional love for your client…and I say, No! I have unconditional positive regard for the part of my client that is striving toward the light and I am an enemy against the part that is trying to drag that person down.”
Anne was not concerned for Helen’s comfort – comfort was keeping her from progression. Anne had to make Helen uncomfortable enough that she was forced to find a new path forward. As the clip above shows, this was a painful and harsh experience – it didn’t look a lot like the “love” of compassion and acceptance, it looked like punishment, it looked like suffering. But Anne had faith, she knew that if Helen could simply grasp language, then she could see her ultimate potential, a potential full of hope, understanding, and influence.
In this incredibly emotional scene, Helen’s eyes are opened to language. The pieces finally fit together in her mind and she understands. As she discovers the staggering reality of the gift Anne has given her she is filled with Love for her teacher. She later recounted this moment, “‘Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten … and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then 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! … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object … I touched seemed to quiver with life.” (Clip 6:12)
Not only did Anne’s love produce a miracle in Helen’s life, but Helen’s love for Anne transformed her teacher. Anne was able to find peace and appreciation in her friendship with Helen that she had never experienced. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan became inseparable and were companions for 49 years. “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.”
Sacrifice + Love = Hope
Throughout her long life Helen Keller faced each situation in physical darkness and silence. She could have remained insular and protective. Instead she was the first blind/deaf person to graduate from university, she wrote several books, became an influential activist, public speaker, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was named one of the most influential people of the 20th century. She was determined to find joy and meaning despite her physical limitations. “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I am in, therein to be content.”
Perhaps the memory of her pathetic state before that remarkable moment at the water pump kept her always conscious of her need for gratitude. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” Progressing onward, towards a great purpose – sacrificing our selfish desires and excuses for the love of someone or something – will always create a sense of optimism and hope. Self-pity and bitterness are left behind and we are hopeful for what lies ahead. We have gained confidence in our ability to overcome because we have done it before, and we know what it takes.
We all can feel blind and powerless – like six-year-old Helen Keller. We may be groping in the dark for happiness and fulfillment, completely oblivious to the plans or purposes of our Teacher. We can choose to dwell on our limitations, or be content in our inadequacies – but our Teacher sees our potential. Sometimes the lessons He gives are incomprehensible to us; they may frustrate us and cause us to question His wisdom and love. Despite our lack of appreciation, He will keep working with us until we finally come to that great Understanding- when we realize what it all means and what we could be. Then our sacrifice of self will be insignificant to the majesty of our newfound life of hope and purpose.
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” 1 Corintians 2:9
*Quotes by Helen Keller unless otherwise indicated.
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