In an economic system that criminalizes poverty, an America in which one in eight citizens are officially and actually poor with no hope of climbing a ladder to prosperity that has no rungs, a nation in which greed is canonized so the elite have a special elevator to paradise on earth, a country in which the President calls whole nations the equivalent of an outhouse, a government that will deport thousands of innocent Salvadorans back to the terrors of their gang-infested country and an election ahead that might already be fixed by gerrymandering like any roulette table where the house “somehow” always wins — who does one look to for guidance in how to keep on battling such entrenched and wicked inequities?
The beginning of 2018 — with all its seemingly insurmountable inanities and cruelties — makes me think of Helen Keller who died in that awful year 1968 at the age of 87, fifty years ago. She was my hero when I was a kid. Born with eyesight and hearing, she lost them both to an unknown illness at the age of two, which left her deaf, “dumb,” and blind. I thought of her this Christmas, too, while reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” on the burden of decline that all of us who’ve lived a long time must face. The thought of Keller as a little girl, a little girl suffering the troubles and miseries of aging when she was very young, saddened and inspired me. I knew that through an unquenchable curiosity and strength of character, she reversed the process and came to live a full and powerful life enlivened by her empathy and service to others.
Her staggering accomplishments first came into focus for me a dozen years before her death when I was 15 or 16, and she was a famous author, celebrated and persecuted radical activist and conscience of the left. I watched her on a Sunday morning TV interview. It was a revelation. Through her sense of touch and hungry mind, she escaped what seemed to me like an impossible dead end of the senses. She was for me, a baffled kid with a terrible stutter, a profound symbol of prevailing against impossible obstacles. At first, I had no idea how she became so beautifully educated, so galvanizing and articulate, so socially magnanimous, so vastly generous.
How did she learn to speak and read and write and do all the things she did?
It turned out not to be hard to learn her story. But still with all the incredible good fortune in finding loyal and brilliant teachers and companions over her lifetime, she did what she did on her own volition, with her own intelligence and stick-to-it-iveness, with her own optimism and moxie. And the message came through to me, as it did to so many others, that if she could do the impossible, I surely could find someway around my own impediments that seemed so overwhelming but compared to hers also seemed as nothing. It came to me even then that the key to opening any prison of fate was an inner refusal to be defeated. What I questioned was how one sustains such a refusal. The 87 years of Keller’s life gives us a clue.
She taught us to acknowledge and accept the great paradoxical co-existence of self-reliance and interdependence. She wouldn’t have, I imagine, balked at a description of her self, and her philosophy of life, as Emersonian and socialistic.
Three quotes from Emerson sum up for me the quality of her inner strength: “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Her optimism and gratitude were boundless. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Her defiance of stereotypes and forced limitations are at the core of Emersonian self-reliance. And lastly, “Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as to think.”
Her understanding of human interdependence is seen in her socialist objection to the kind of might-makes-right capitalism that profits from the exploitation of workers, women, minorities and consumers drugged by advertising into contributing to the vast profits of banks and insurance companies that are associated with interest on debt. The non-radical world tried to bury Keller’s politics, her support of worker’s rights and solidarity, her pacifism, her struggle for voting rights for women, her relentless attacks on economic injustice, her ever-present voice in favor of birth control, her support of the NAACP, and her co-founding of the ACLU and its passion for the daily enactment and preservation of the Bill of Rights. It’s a painful testament to her influence on American politics and values that the FBI kept Keller under surveillance for decades and compiled a massive file on her activities, which included, of course, her efforts on behalf of people who can’t help themselves. In one of her many speeches, Keller said plainly that “helping your fellow men…(is) one’s only excuse for being in this world.” She continued that “in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.”
Keller’s unstoppable self-reliance and her profound compassion for those who suffer miseries brought to them not by fate but by the greed and mean-heartedness of others shows us how to lift the edge of the heavy pall of darkness that is politics in America at the moment. Withdrawal, right now, is the last thing we should contemplate. “I am only one,” Keller said, “but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
She also told us of her belief that “No one has the right to consume happiness without producing it.” I’m certain she could have said with Emerson “I believe justice produces justice, injustice injustice.”
In invoking old heroes, I find myself drawn ever more strongly to what I can only call an empowering sympathy with Keller’s understanding of the meaning and purpose a useful life, and the plight, often too terrible to bear, that all of us share as fellow citizens of the world. Self-reliance and solidarity — as she said, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”