Archive for January 3rd, 2023



Early Noctograph ca. 1810

It is a mistake always to contemplate the good and ignore the evil, because by making people neglectful it lets in disaster. There is a dangerous optimism of ignorance and indifference. It is not enough to say that the twentieth century is the best age in the history of mankind, and to take refuge from the evils of the world in skyey dreams of good. How many good men, prosperous and contented, looked around and saw naught but good, while millions of their fellow men were bartered and sold like cattle! No doubt, there were comfortable optimists who thought Wilberforce a meddlesome fanatic when he was working with might and main to free the slaves. I distrust the rash optimism in this country that cries, ” Hurrah, we’re all right ! This is the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call loudly for redress. That is false optimism. Optimism that does not count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.
      I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone and make that Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.
       Thus my optimism is grounded in two worlds, myself and what is about me. I demand that the world be good, and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true. To what is good I open the doors of my being, and jealously shut them against what is bad. Such is the force of this beautiful and willful conviction, it carries itself in the face of all opposition. I am never discouraged by absence of good. I never can be argued into hopelessness. Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.

–Helen Keller, Optimism Within, 1903

After I wrote yesterday’s blog entry, I was thinking that I needed to point out that not all optimism is equal. There is one form that is reckless and lazy, whose adherents believe that things will always work out without any concern or help from them. There is a reciprocal form of pessimism that is equally as reckless and lazy, one that believes that the end is near so why try to stop it. Both are inactive and irresponsible.

I guess what I wanted to add to yesterday’s post is that my optimism is a cautious one, one based on me staying informed, doing research, and trying to do whatever it takes to help others and myself along the way. It is an optimism that tries to be active and participatory. It understands that the path into the future consists of hills and valleys, that it is effort that creates the lasting change that fuels true optimism.

In thinking about this I came across some passages from a short book, Optimism, that Helen Keller wrote in 1903 while still a student at Radcliffe. The passages I read described very much the sort of optimism I had wanted to describe, one that differentiated between the naive and detached Pollyannish sort and that which is more realistic and engaged.

I decided to find the book to make sure I was understanding these passages in their original context. I went to the Internet Archive, one of my favorite sites for researching older books. It allows you to leaf through old volumes and has a great search function. Optimism was there and I quickly found the passages which led me to reading more of the book. It described her optimism in terms that made sense to my way of thinking. It was quite an interesting read and even in these few paragraphs, there are numerous memorable lines, such as:

I distrust the rash optimism in this country that cries, ” Hurrah, we’re all right ! This is the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call loudly for redress. That is false optimism.

With all that Helen Keller overcame, she, of all people, could write on optimism with authority.

A little added info: The Wilberforce she mentions in the passage above is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the Member of Parliament who was the driving force in the British movement for the abolition of slavery, which culminated in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Wilberforce also founded the British SPCA. the world’s first animal welfare organization.

Also, while doing my research I discovered that before she was introduced to the Braille System of reading and writing for the blind, Helen Keller used a device to actually write with her own hand. As you can see from the image below, from a letter she wrote when only 11 years old, her handwriting in her writings of that time was quite neat and orderly. Much better than my own, that’s for sure. It was made with some form of a device called a noctograph like the one shown at the top. I had never heard of this device so a little research uncovered that it was invented in the early 1800’s so that people with loss of sight or those in the dark could more easily write. I have included a short video below that explains how it worked.

Helen_Keller_ Letter 1891

Helen Keller Letter 1891

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