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Helen Keller, An American Icon: “To be an American is to be an optimist“

By Dr. Rainer Zitelmann


She was friends with the most famous people of her day and age, including Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell; she was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard University in 1955 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964; she published numerous bestsellers, gave lectures in 35 countries and inspired millions – but she could neither see nor hear, and never really learned to speak. Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880. Shortly thereafter, a childhood illness left her deaf and blind.


Helen had the great fortune to have a teacher in Anne Sullivan, a woman with tremendous willpower, who set herself great goals and never gave up until she had achieved them. Sullivan’s greatest ambition was to lift her student out of the darkness and teach her everything she needed to know to communicate at least as well and know at least as much as the people around her who could see, hear, and speak. Later in life, Helen Keller wrote a book about her teacher (Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy) in which she offered the following description of her teacher: “She could not simplify herself or restrain her ambition (I prefer to call it love of perfection) or circumscribe her dream-nurtured plans for me. She was consumed with restlessness, and moderation was beyond her power to develop. She could not submit to any fate if it meant defeat for us.”


Helen Keller could easily have used the same words to describe herself. She was able to achieve so much more in her life than any deaf-blind person before her because, in combination with Anne Sullivan, here were two people who lived together in inseparable solidarity for 50 years, driven by the most ambitious goals and an unquenchable enthusiasm for learning. “We both believed,” explained Keller, “that self-improvement is not too difficult if one sees its need with one’s mind and realizes it as an inner experience of consciousness and will power.”


In late 1900, she enrolled at college and was overwhelmed on her first day. “I had looked forward to it for years. A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them.” This is what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” namely the confidence to cope with extremely challenging situations and to overcome the “unforeseen” obstacles that life throws your way. The striving for perfection that united Keller and her teacher Sullivan becomes clear when she writes, “I was for her a little explorer of life, and she did not pet or praise me unless my efforts equaled the best of which normal children are capable.” This idea of not comparing oneself with other handicapped people, but with non-handicapped people, is a constant theme that runs through all of Keller’s books. The two people in the world who knew Helen Keller as well as her family were Anne Sullivan and her husband John Macy, who described Keller as follows: “Her life has been a series of attempts to do whatever other people do, and to do it as well […] Her unwillingness to be beaten has developed her courage. Where another can go, she can go.”


On June 28, 1904, Keller graduated “cum laude” from Radcliffe College with a Bachelor of Arts. She was a woman with a great imagination, and this imagination enabled her to set herself great goals and see these goals in her mind’s eye, as she explained in her book The World I Live In: “Of us it is as true as it is of the seeing that the most beautiful world is always entered through the imagination. If you wish to be something that you are not, – something fine, noble, good, – you shut your eyes, and for one dreamy moment you are that which you long to be.” What Keller is describing is the process of visualization, one of the key techniques of autosuggestion. Clearly, it is a technique that Keller also used. In fact, being deaf and blind probably made it easier for her to visualize, because she was not so easily distracted by external stimuli, which left her able to more easily focus her inner eye on what she wanted to be.


For Keller, Sullivan was something of a motivational coach. In Teacher, Keller quotes many of Anne Sullivan’s inspirational sentences, including, “No matter what happens, keep on beginning and failing. Each time you fail, start all over again, and you will grow stronger until you find that you have accomplished a purpose – not the one you began with, perhaps, but one you will be glad to remember.”


One of the reasons Helen Keller became an American icon was because she was such a powerful proponent of positive thinking – similar to the authors Dale Carnegie, Joseph Murphy, Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale and others. “[…] as I regard my country,” she writes in her 1903 essay on Optimism, “I find that to be an American is to be an optimist.”


Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is author of the book The Power of Capitalism.