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Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.                 Helen Keller

It was noted by one of Helen Keller’s biographers in 1960 that if a worldwide poll were to be taken to determine the most outstanding woman of their generation, no doubt the top selection would be Helen Keller.

I would say that even in 2017, if a poll were taken of women whose lives were a tremendous influence for good, Helen Keller would be still be among the top on the list. The work that she did for the blind and other handicapped people has helped untold numbers of people.

And those of us who are not physically disabled can still be inspired by her courage.

helen-keller-youngHelen Adams Keller was born a normal, healthy girl on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She had nothing wrong with her vision or hearing until she was about nineteen months old. Then in February 1882 Helen developed a severe congestion of the stomach and brain. In those days the doctors called it “brain fever”, but they really did not know much about the condition medically. Modern doctors believe it may have been scarlet fever, hemolytic streptococcus or even meningitis. In any event it was very serious and doctors even thought that Helen would die.

Gradually her fever subsided and Helen recovered. Her parents did not suspect that anything was wrong until one morning when Helen’s mother passed her hand over the baby’s face. Helen did not blink her eyes. They soon realized that Helen could not hear a bell ringing either. Helen was living in a world where she could not perceive light or sound and she was also mute.

Helen was an unusual girl. She had such a zest for life that her parents found a teacher for her, Miss Annie Sullivan. Annie Sullivan helped Helen to lead a happy life in spite of her disabilities.

There is a famous story about Helen as a girl which illustrates the wonderful occasionhelen-keller-annie-sullivan-160177633x when she was able to grasp the idea of language. Annie had been trying to teach Helen to connect the spelling of “mug”, “doll”, and “water” to the objects themselves. Helen was so frustrated that she threw a temper tantrum, throwing a doll on the floor.

Annie did not give up on Helen. They went for a walk and came upon a well. Annie thrust Helen’s hands into the cool water as it was being pumped from the well while she spelled the word “water” into Helen’s other hand.

Later in her autobiography Helen recalled, “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; 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. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”[1]And with Annie’s help many barriers were swept away.

About two years after Helen discovered the joy of language she had her first instruction in religion. She received instruction from Bishop Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Helen had many questions about God; questions that Annie who was a nonbeliever could not help her with.

Helen went on to be highly educated, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1904, the first deaf-blind women to graduate from college. There were many Braille books for her to read from by this time. She studied many subjects in college but loved philosophy best.

It is so incredible to me how someone who did not have sight or hearing could even imagine such deep concepts. Without having some sort of examples to draw from how did she experience God, life, love, and thoughts of eternity including Heaven. Those things are hard enough for a seeing/hearing person to think about.

Helen’s favorite philosopher was Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg had been a member of the Swedish Parliament and was a scientist when at the age of 55 he had a profound religious experience. He wrote many books explaining his experiences. He wrote about concepts of universal spiritual reality and brotherhood, a loving God, and an afterlife in which no one would suffer from limitations and physical disabilities. According to Swedenborg death is just a change of place from earth to a new world where Helen would be able to see and hear.

Helen’s father died in 1896 when Helen was sixteen. In the 1920’s Helen, in her forties, went on the vaudeville stage to support herself and her teacher Annie. It was difficult for Helen to get up in front of an audience but she willingly did it because she had to. In 1921 Helen’s mother died from a prolonged terminal illness. Helen could take comfort in the thought that she would see her mother in Heaven.

Now Helen had only Annie. A sad day finally came when Annie suffered a severe case of the flu and would be plagued with bad health for the rest of her life. Helen continued to perform on stage to support them. Then in 1936 Annie died. She and Helen had been together for nearly fifty years.

helen-keller-quotesPeople wondered, “How would Helen get around now without her helper?” But Helen met the challenge with her usual courage and fortitude. Her vitality and sense of adventure amazed everyone. They knew that in part at least it was due to her strong religious faith. Many would claim that meeting Helen was like having a religious experience. They were uneasy around her, not knowing how much sympathy to give. She always put them at ease with her good spirit and ready laughter.

In June 1955, a week before her seventy-fifth birthday, Helen received an honorary degree from Harvard University, the first women to receive such an award. When her name was called at the ceremony she received a standing ovation.

In her final years of life Helen read her Bible every morning, especially the Psalms. It is no surprise that her favorites were Psalms 90, 98, 100 and 23. Every Sunday Helen took time for private devotions to God.

Helen Adams Keller died on a Saturday afternoon, June 1, 1968, several weeks before her birthday. She had suffered a heart attack a few weeks earlier. Her companion at the time, Winnie Corbally was at her bedside. Winnie said that Helen died peacefully, just drifting off into her sleep. Helen was not afraid of death.

And so the woman who spent almost her entire life in a dark and soundless world was welcomed by her Savior into light and life and joy and the sound of trumpets and angels rejoicing.

Helen could now sing one of her favorite Psalms, Psalm 98, seeing the Lord and hearing His praises.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things, …
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.

 

 

[1] From “The Story of My Life”, Helen Keller

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