June 6, 2021

Shafts of Light, VI: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Passage: Psalm 146

Praise for God’s Help
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
Happy are those whose help
is the God of Jacob,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,

Have you ever played the game “Would You Rather?” at a dinner party or at work?

Would you rather be beautiful or brilliant?
Would you rather live in the Sahara or Antarctica?
Would you rather win an Olympic Gold Medal or the Nobel Peace Prize?
Would you rather be blind or deaf? 

Personally, I’d choose to be deaf. I’d give up my wife’s sultry voice to keep her stunning face. I’d give up Tchaikovsky’s Sixth to keep the Grand Canyon.

Psychologists tell us that 80% of what we learn comes through our eyes; 80% of what we remember comes through our eyes. (Obviously this applies to sighted people only.)

What would it be like to be both blind and deaf? Human beings have five senses, of course, five gateways to the outer world. You could lack two of them—scent and taste—without hampering your participation in the fullness of life. Nobody would even know you lacked them unless you told them.

But the other three—sight, hearing, and touch—are integral to the fullness of life. Can you imagine how lonely and isolated you would be if you could neither see nor hear?

You probably know that Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1880, a perfectly healthy baby, in fact a precocious child.  She spoke her first word at six months—“water”.

Then at 19 months she almost died from a severe fever which took her sight and hearing. To this day doctors still don’t know what afflicted Helen, but the best guess is meningitis.

For the next five years, Helen’s isolation turned her into a wild, unruly, angry child with no manners and frequent tantrums. Until the woman she would forever call “My Teacher” walked into her life when she was six years old.

If you’re curious about Helen Keller’s life, you could read her moving autobiography, The Story of My Life. It’s about a hundred pages and will take you a couple of hours.

Or you could spend those two hours watching the film The Miracle Worker, which is based entirely on Helen’s own story. Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Actress, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The film beautifully and accurately tells the harrowing story of how Anne Sullivan tried to teach Helen Keller the names of various objects in her world by finger-spelling them out for her into Helen’s hand.

For days and days it didn’t work. Helen wasn’t making the connection between the finger-spelled words and their corresponding objects, until one day Anne pumped a stream of water over Helen’s left hand and spelled w-a-t-e-r into her right hand, and that was Helen’s eureka moment.

Everything had a name. She pounded the ground and demanded to know its name—earth. She touched an oak—tree. By that evening, she’d learned 30 words. A couple of weeks later, she’d learned 900. And she was off to the races.

She eventually learned five different methods of communication—she would touch your lips while you talked, literally reading your lips; she read Braille; she learned to speak; she was a mean typist; and most importantly of all, finger-spelling.

In 1904 she became the first deaf-blind graduate of Radcliffe College at Harvard University, cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. For the rest of her life, she traveled the world speaking up—literally, speaking up—for the deaf, and blind, and other differently-abled children. In 1920, she became one of the founders of the ACLU.

This is neither here nor there, but do you remember when a few years ago all 50 states minted their own distinctive quarters to feature something special about that particular state? You can probably guess who’s on the Illinois quarter, but do you know who is on the Alabama quarter? It is the only quarter with Braille.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan are the only partnered pair featured in the Malott Chapel windows. All the rest are extraordinary human beings but solo acts. Without the other, neither Helen Keller nor Anne Sullivan would be included in our group of 15 twentieth-century heroes and saints; we wouldn’t even know their names. They’re a team.

That’s important. And that’s all I really want to say this morning: that in order to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we really only need two things—our own stubborn resilience, and a friend who knows something and just won’t quit.

Are you deaf? Are you blind? Are you lame? Are you dyslexic? Are you on the spectrum? Are you ADHD? Do you have cancer? How can you use your hindrance, your differentness, to reach out to some isolated soul stumbling around in darkness and silence or lost in a dark wood alone?

I don’t want to put lipstick on that pig of whatever ails you. It probably really is an obstacle to your participation in the fullness of life, but you could transform that deficit into an asset for someone else.

Anne Sullivan suffered an eye infection when she was a child and was practically blind herself for the rest of her life. She began her life in a horror show of an abusive orphanage.

At the age of 14, she convinced state authorities to send her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, but life there at the beginning was only marginally better because at 14 she was practically blind, dressed in rags, illiterate, and had never learned the niceties and courtesies of polite society.

Her classmates mercilessly mocked her at first, but she was just as stubborn as Helen Keller and persevered. At the age of 20, she graduated as valedictorian of her class, and in her valedictory address she told her classmates: “Friends, let us set ourselves to find our special calling. Every obstacle we overcome and every success we achieve draws us closer to God and makes life more as God would have it.” Wow, you think Anne Sullivan might have found her special calling?

It was precisely her own experience of blindness, loneliness, exile, and exclusion that made her jump at the chance to travel from Boston to Tuscumbia to take a little deaf-blind six-year-old by the hand—literally by the hand—and lead her slowly but surely out of her lonely darkness and silence.

You know St. Francis’ famous prayer, right? “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Sometimes it is our very affliction that gentles us and shapes us into a gadget our Glad God can get to gain God’s good goals.

A couple of weeks ago, The Washington Post interviewed a whole bunch of high school valedictorians and asked them what they planned to tell their classmates in their valedictory speeches. Really nice article. Grayson Catlett, the valedictorian at Central High School in Chattanooga, is headed for the University of Pennsylvania. He planned to tell his classmates: “We’ve been through a lot in this pandemic year, a year unlike any other, but graduating this year is even more rewarding, because if this is all the stuff that we can overcome, I’m finding it hard to imagine what we can’t.”[1] I predict that that young man will thrive at Penn and make it a better place. Sometimes what we think of as a deficit actually becomes an asset.

Or this Church too.  Look at all we’ve learned in the last 15 months. OK, it’s true: most of it is about technology and audio-visual kinds of things. I’m talking about Joel Fox, who always hides in the Sound Booth. And John Sharp, who so capably runs the whole show. And Lisa Bond. Look at all that Lisa’s learned since March of last year. She’s even more brilliant now than she was then.

Psalm 146 says,
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
who executes justice for the oppressed;
sets the prisoner free;
and opens the eyes of the blind.

Now where else have you heard this very vocabulary? I think Psalm 146 might have been the inspiration for Jesus’ very first sermon in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.”

God never opened Helen Keller’s blind eyes. Or did he? Maybe God opened her blind eyes and unstopped her deaf ears by placing Annie Sullivan into her life at just the right moment.

Annie taught Helen five ways to speak and to hear. Five ways to understand and to be understood, way more communications than you and I have mastered. Because Annie Sullivan really was a Miracle Worker.

May God grant you as well as two of life’s most precious gifts: invincible resilience, and a friend who knows something, and will just never quit. And if you don’t have a friend like that, I pray that you’ll be a friend like that.

[1]Joe Heim, “High School Valedictorians Put a Year Like No Other in Perspective,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2021.

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