Editor’s note: This piece is republished from the On Solid Ground blog at TOS’s sister organization, Objective Standard Institute.
Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. —Helen Keller.
In 1882, when Helen Keller was nineteen months old, an illness left her blind, deaf, and consequently dumb. For the next five years, she lived essentially as a wild animal in the home of her loving but desperate parents, who had no idea how to deal with her condition. She was unable to form concepts (e.g., “fork” or “water”), unable to communicate thoughts (beyond wordless expressions of desire, anger, pleasure, or pain), unable to understand the world or her needs, unable to become a functional human being. Her future looked bleak. But she would go on to live a life of success and happiness.
When Helen was six, her parents hired a remarkable educator, Anne Sullivan, who taught her language. Under Anne’s tutelage, Helen learned to “hear” (via the manual alphabet), speak, read (braille), and write—and she went on to graduate from Harvard University and to enjoy a happy, fulfilling career as a writer and activist.1 She argued for, among other things, equal rights for women and blacks, the legalization of birth control and abortion, and (unfortunately) socialism (about which she knew far less than we know today). On the whole, Helen lived a purposeful, fulfilling, happy life. And she did so against all odds.
The story of how Anne Sullivan engaged with Helen Keller and taught her to communicate is portrayed beautifully in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, which I highly recommend. The philosophic significance of Sullivan’s teaching methods is examined in Ayn Rand’s essay “Kant Versus Sullivan” (in Philosophy: Who Needs It), which I emphatically recommend as well.
My focus here is on Keller’s prescriptions for loving life. She is, to my knowledge, among the few people in history to explicitly and succinctly identify the fundamental actions that an individual must take in order to flourish. . . .
1. “The Manual Alphabet,” American Foundation for the Blind, https://www.afb.org/about-afb/history/online-museums/anne-sullivan-miracle-worker/formative-years/manual-alphabet (accessed June 30, 2020).
2. Helen Keller, “‘The Simplest Way to Be Happy’ as Published in Home Magazine (February 1933),” American Foundation for the Blind, https://www.afb.org/about-afb/history/helen-keller/books-essays-speeches/faith/simplest-way-be-happy-published-home (accessed June 30, 2020).
3. Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905), 422.
4. Keller, Story of My Life, 25.