The Tolerant Eyes of Helen Keller
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
It was Shakespeare who wrote, “The eyes are the window to your soul.” His use of ‘soul’ suggests a spiritual man. Historians mostly agree, considering he baptized his children and was buried in a churchyard. If so, he possibly drew inspiration from Matthew 6, where he found ‘The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness!’
It was eyes that were closed that concerned Albert Einstein. It appears that curiosity was the greatest of all virtues to America's most famous scientist and deviser of one of life's most significant theories- the theory of relativity. He wrote this; "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
And what do those who do not see, see? Blinded by illness as an infant, Helen Keller wrote, ‘Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful. To be blind is bad, but worse is to have eyes and not see.’
Like Shakespeare, Helen Keller left much of what she saw to posterity with writings, including this observation; ‘Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.’
Imagining a blind Helen Keller attempting to balance atop a bicycle adds to the marvel of sight and all its complexities- and the travesty of being blind. Without seeing, balancing on two wheels is neigh impossible. It sounds as if she tried, fell, and that is why she believes toleration is so difficult.
Judging by the rumblings of our culture today, Helen Keller must have felt the coming shaking of intolerance like a bird senses a storm- in her being. Her life saw many storms, having meandered through the earthquakes of two world wars and the resulting millions lost to intolerance and bigotry. Highly educated and well-read, a voracious learner, and living to a seasoned age of 87, she concluded that the mind’s greatest gift was- tolerance.
As someone who firmly believed it was education that opened eyes and created a mind capable of much, I think Ms. Keller would find our culture’s landscape today a terrible mess. Learning institutions are more about the shielding of eyes and protecting the fragile from ideas seen as antithetical to progressive ideology. I believe she would be aghast at hearing that young folk with freshly printed diplomas were tearing down statues and forcing their fellow human beings to take a knee in forced submission to a dogma that is, at best, a theory.
Like many learned people from her generation, It is hard to imagine them accepting statements that suggest all whites are racist. Helen Keller particularly. She was unable to see skin color as much as she was unable to ride a bicycle. No amount of white privilege allowed her to learn braille, write books, or co-found the American Civil Liberties Union, or encourage millions of readers to persevere and find joy in overcoming obstacles.
And as someone who spent a lifetime in pursuit of knowledge, I think she’d grow weary of hearing that the science surrounding one of the most complex systems known to humankind, climate science, is ‘settled.’ What one must learn to balance a bike is perhaps child’s play to what one must learn regarding climate — but perhaps less complicated than what it takes to see.
Ms. Keller places a lot of respect on having an education. Rightfully so. I don’t believe she foresaw the corruption that was to come. It is clear today that education alone will not overcome fear or insecurity and result in mature toleration. This fear, often exhibited as anger, grows palpable when strongly held notions, opinions, and theories, are countered with equally reasoned arguments. But for many, particularly the fragile, the unbalanced, being disagreed with creates a sense of insecurity. Disagreement is seen as an attempt to diminish preciously held positions and then interpreted as a personal affront.
With every disagreement seen as a personal attack, toleration soon dissipates into anger. Perhaps that is what Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, meant when he said, “An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.”
All I know of Helen Keller is what I’ve read. She is worth reading. I leave believing that her view that education encourages toleration requires the mind to become mature, generous, and balanced, able to withstand, accept, and tolerate a wide variety of ideas and opinions.
Helen Keller overcame many obstacles in her life. Her optimism suggests a mature, generous view of the world, which along with her education, gave her great insight into what is required to become mindfully tolerant.
Those who see mostly darkness will see her clear-headed plain-speaking optimism as a flaw, a chink in her armor, a personality quirk unbecoming of an intelligent person. But then again, many find those who find optimism, a generosity of spirit, and peace in a belief of life beyond as… well… one must be blind. Perhaps she saw life as only a blind person can see, and just maybe, she’s riding her bicycle today. She believed that possible.
Helen Keller left us many words to live by, including these;
“Four things to learn in life: To think clearly without hurry or confusion; To love everybody sincerely; To act in everything with the highest motives; To trust God unhesitatingly.”