“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” Helen Keller
Helen Keller was only 19 months old when she lost her sight and hearing due to an unknown illness. With the help of her extraordinary teacher, Anne Sullivan, she went on to become the first woman with ‘deaf-blindness’ to attain a degree and at the prestigious Radcliffe College no less. She was a writer and speaker of renown, nominated for a Nobel prize and considered one of the most influential personalities of the 20th century (she died in 1968) alongside Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. She was a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.
Keller was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and a strong supporter of birth control, all radical views for a woman in the early 20th century.
Helen Keller is an example of what it is to lead a life of vision and determination, passion and compassion, despite great obstacles and difficulties. She represents the type of moral and spiritual leadership that the world always needs. She marched to her own tune but remained superbly sensitive to the tunes of others.
I got to thinking of Helen when reflecting on the sorry state of our world and especially our disillusionment with leaders. There’s a pervasive sense of anxiety and a dearth of moral and spiritual leadership.
I thought of her, especially while reading the strange Torah chapters about the prophet Balaam (Numbers 22 -25).
In one of the most enigmatic stories of the Bible, this respected seer and public relations man displays a singular lack of vision and insight. He has eyes, but he does not see, or in Helen’s arresting words: “it is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”
His hapless donkey sees what he cannot see because he is blinded by his own egotism and greed. It has to be one of the most humorous Biblical vignettes when the donkey turns to him and begins to talk, pointing out to Balaam what he was failing to see: an angel of God standing in the path brandishing a fiery sword! Balaam’s eyes are then opened and he declares to the angel: “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way” (Ibid 22,34).
We so often close our eyes to the things we would rather not see, we close the doors of our perception, we block the pathways to our own hearts and souls. We stifle our potential out of fear, lethargy, greed , complacency or habit.
And we abandon the angels in our wake. We cast aside the better angels of our being. Or as the great Jewish patriarch Jacob poignantly realises that he had gone to sleep without recognising that he was in a place saturated with spirituality: “How awesome is this place! This must be the house of God and the gateway to heaven itself’’(Genesis 28:17).
There’s an important, albeit obvious, lesson for living here: stay alert, be aware, don’t just take things for what they appear to be, and look within.
My favourite Helen Keller quote is this one: “I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in sea or sky, nothing in city streets, othing in books.
It were far better to sail forever in the night of blindness with sense and feeling and mind than to be content with the mere act of seeing. The only lightless dark is the night of darkness in ignorance and insensibility.’’
In the end it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see that counts.