Originally published September 7, 2018
Most people know at least the basics about Helen Keller. But a brief review will help set the stage for our discussion.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Alabama, USA. She was born with all of her natural senses.
But in 1882, Helen was stricken by an unknown illness that left her blind and deaf. She was only 19 months old, so she had never learned to speak to any significant degree.
As a child Helen became wild and unruly. When angry she would kick and scream. When happy she would laugh hysterically.
Many of the family relatives suggested that she be institutionalized.
But through a series of events, Helen was introduced to Anne Sullivan, who would become her teacher, companion, and friend for the next 49 years.
It was Sullivan who helped Helen make the connection between words and the objects they represent.
It was the breakthrough Helen needed for a lifetime of achievements. Several of which are worth noting.
- She was the first deaf and blind person to earn a college bachelor’s degree, graduating from Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1904.
- Helen wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life in her junior year at Radcliffe. It recounted her life from a child with severe physical disabilities to her time as a 21-year old college student. The book remains in print in over 50 languages, and was the basis for both a Broadway play and a 1962 Oscar-winning film, The Miracle Worker.
- Helen published 12 books in her lifetime.
- She was a world-renowned speaker, and made speeches to millions around the world.
- In 1964 she was awarded the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.
- In 1999, Time Magazine included Helen Keller in its list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
- Throughout her life, Helen Keller was not only a powerful advocate for the disadvantaged and disabled, she was an inspiration to countless others. Her life was extraordinary by any measure.
Keller was using a metaphor
When we consider that Helen Keller was blind, we realize she was referring to “walking in the dark” in a metaphorical sense. She was always “in the dark,” in the literal and physical sense.
Just as walking “in the light,” was also metaphorical. But what does she mean?
Darkness implies danger
For people with sight, darkness implies danger. Lack of light means there are things we cannot see.
There might be an obstacle in our path. There might be a dangerous person lurking in the shadows. There might be a warning we don’t see.
We’re much more likely to have a mishap when we can’t see well. Have you ever tripped over something in the middle of the night because you didn’t want to turn on the light?
Light helps us feel safe, while darkness makes us feel vulnerable.
Darkness implies confusion
Darkness also implies confusion. Things don’t look the same in the dark as they do in the light. It’s harder to judge distance.
It’s harder to make out shapes. It’s harder to be sure of what we’re looking at.
Darkness can confuse us. And the confusion can lead to poor judgment. We can make a decision that’s detrimental.
What is crystal clear in the light becomes utterly confusing in the dark.
Darkness implies uncertainty
Darkness brings uncertainty. We just aren’t sure.
Have you ever been driving late at night when exhausted and sleepy? And you see an object ahead that looks pretty scary? Only to realize when you got closer that it was nothing to be concerned about?
In the darkness we just aren’t certain.
All of these physical realities have metaphorical counterparts. Keller was comparing actual physical darkness to the other kinds of darkness we encounter in life.
Times of danger, confusion, and uncertainty
As we walk through life, we encounter things that are dangerous. The greater the darkness, the greater the danger.
We also experience times of confusion. When we don’t fully understand.
When we don’t understand what happened in the past. When we don’t understand what’s happening in the present.
We don’t understand something that was said. Or why we’re being treated as we are.
We’re confused about what we should say. Or not say. We’re confused about a decision we must make.
And on it goes.
And there are the inevitable times of uncertainty. What should we do? When should we do it? Should we do nothing?
Is it better to act immediately, or would it be better to delay?
Should I end what I started? Should I press on in spite of difficulties?
Should I make a radical change, or would a modest alteration be better?
Sometimes life is just plain uncertain. We don’t know what lies ahead. We’re not sure what we should do right now.
It can get overwhelming at times.
Helen understood the value of friendship
No one could have understood this better than Helen Keller.
Before she was 2 years old she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t see, and she couldn’t speak.
Her primary sources of input and communication were almost entirely non-functional. She understood danger, confusion, and uncertainty. Probably better than most.
But there was something she understood just as well. She understood that no matter what she faced, it was better to face it with a friend than face it alone.
That no matter what loomed on the path ahead, she would rather have a friend with her than travel the path alone.
In fact, she would rather walk in darkness with a friend present than enjoy the benefits of light—without a friend.
No doubt her lifelong friendship with her teacher and mentor Anne Sullivan was one person she had in mind when she wrote this.
Helen knew that she would have never made it without the kind friendship of Anne.
There’s a time to be alone
Yes, there are times when we prefer to be alone. When we need to collect our thoughts.
When we need the quiet stillness in which to ponder. Times when we need a break from the noise—even the good noise.
A time when we need to rest and be restored in a way that only solitude can provide.
Nothing beats the companionship of a friend
But when we’re going through times of darkness.
Times of danger, confusion, or uncertainty—nothing beats the companionship of a friend. Nothing can substitute for it. Nothing can replace it.
A good friend can help us in countless ways.
- A friend may see clearly what is fuzzy to us
- A friend may see obstacles we might miss
- A friend can offer us insight from their own experiences
- A friend can help clarify what is ambiguous
- A friend can help us find certainty in the midst of doubt
- A friend can comfort us in times of loss
- A friend can encourage us when we’re down
- A friend can assist us when we’re tired and weak
- A friend can hear us when others won’t listen
- A friend can walk with us when others desert us
The fact is, we need friends even when we’re walking in the light. How much more we need friends when we’re walking in the dark.
Keller’s experience and words ring true.
They’re also good reminders that we too would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
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