Locked away in silent darkness where she neither saw nor heard anything, the little girl felt her way through a world in which she constantly stumbled, having no idea of the reality that lay beyond her comprehension. She is a picture of each of us, who are blind and deaf to a reality that is unfolding around us every moment… having no idea of what is taking place, or the meaning of it all.
Before the searing illness that rendered Helen Keller blind and deaf as a toddler, she was a bright little girl whose first word was “waaaa-waaaa” for water. But from the moment that the dark silence took hold, the ability to reach her, to communicate with her, to teach her about life strictly narrowed. By the age of 7 almost no one could reach her, though her mind was quick and nimble, causing her to have violent outbursts caused by deep frustration.
Her parents loved but pitied her, demanding nothing of her, trying to do everything for her, holding few expectations — and with each day their daughter was becoming more wild, unmanageable, dangerous to herself and others. The Kellers were at the end of themselves, when Annie Sullivan stepped off of the train in Tuscumbia, Alabama, March of 1887.
The teacher had come. Annie Sullivan was not willing that Helen’s life would be a waste. No matter what it took, she cared too much about the potential that lay within the little girl not to fight for her.
Annie refused to pity the little tyrant, who got whatever she wanted — but Annie grieved greatly for her — for if the parenting did not change, Helen would never find any meaning in life, she would remain little more than a kept animal, never knowing this world’s beauty, or the light of comprehension suffusing her mind. Her blindness and deafness were not destroying Helen — but her family’s pity and underestimation of what she was meant-to-be were. Only Annie understood that the real scourge was not Helen’s blindness and deafness but the low expectation that was destroying Helen’s chance for a meaningful life. This is exactly what is destroying our chance for the life we are meant to be living…. an unenlightened, low expectation of what is possible… we settle for what lies so far beneath us that it is a travesty. We need a teacher who is willing to fight for us, no matter what it takes, to bring us out from under that scourge.
The greatest threat to Annie Sullivan’s ability to succeed with Helen, was Helen’s and her overly protective parents’ initial distrust of her. In the beginning, they viewed Annie’s strong measures as working against them, when she was actually fighting for them. How often have I flinched at God’s methods with me, distrusting Him, feeling as if He was working against me, when He was actually fighting for me?
On more than one occasion before Helen understood that her teacher was trying to help her, she and Annie had knock-down drag-out fights. Annie kept Helen from hurting herself, but she had to forcefully break the spoiled little girl’s resolve to do everything she wanted her own way, if she was ever going to learn how to do things so that she could experience the wider world awaiting her. The little girl wanted to fumble around the dining room table groping her family’s plates and glasses, eating like an animal… Annie wanted her to grasp the concept of sharing a meal with her family in such a way that she could go on to dine anywhere with anyone in the world…. which one day Helen would, dining with dignitaries from all around the world. But as Annie began to teach her how to sit in a chair, Helen resented the restraint, kicking and flailing, hurling plates and flatware across the dining room. Annie would not have it. But as Helen was held fast by the firm and unrelenting grip of her determined teacher, she erupted in wild fury and fear against the very one trying to help her. It was a contest of wills, that Annie would only win because she was so committed to the little girl who didn’t understand.
There is a contest of wills taking place in our own life. But have we understood that our apparent adversity may actually be the firm unrelenting grip of our determined Teacher Who is committed to what we don’t understand? God is fighting for us, not against us — often coming in painful, confusing circumstances to break the grip of our resistance to what He is intent on teaching us.
A time of rigorous adversity is the necessary prelude to every breakthrough.
Count on it.
The Point of Breakthrough
The point of breakthrough Annie Sullivan was gunning for, was the moment when Helen would suddenly realize that her teacher’s repeated exercises meant something.
Their first day together, Annie gave Helen a doll. Placing the beloved doll into Helen’s welcoming embrace, Annie took the little girl’s free hand — gently manipulating her fingers to spell “d-o-l-l” in sign language. This was repeated over and over for weeks and months. . . as Annie sought to create a link for Helen between the object of her affection and the spelling of it’s name into her hand. Annie was signing into Helen’s hand what needed to become a shared language, but the little girl didn’t understand that her teacher’s manipulation of her fingers and palm meant something… that it was the shared language of words that would bring her out of her darkness into a larger world.
Like Helen, we have to be able to recognize the shared language that our Teacher is spelling into our hand, in order to be brought out of the limitations of our own blind deafness. The divine dialogue is God taking us through endlessly repeated exercises until we begin to recognize the shared language meant to bring us into what we can realize no other way.
For Helen it was frustrating. “Doll”, “tree”, “milk”, “eyes”, “face” — Annie labored to establish the connections, spelling the words into Helen’s little hands for the objects those words stood for. But Helen didn’t understand. And when she grew tired of it, Helen would send a pitcher crashing across the room, or slap her teacher in the face, or throw herself on the floor kicking wildly. At times, Annie had to physically wrestle with the little girl to keep her attention on one task. Helen was quick of mind having no trouble signing the words back and forth . . . but she had no idea these tiresome exercises were words. She didn’t know what a word was.
This would all change in a single moment.
Frustrated, Helen had thrown a pitcher of water across the dining room; so Annie dragged her, wild and rebellious, out to the pump, forcing Helen to refill the pitcher with the water she had just thrown out. Helen was wet with water, feeling the water pouring out of the spigot, feeling it crash into the pitcher, her teacher spelling it over and over into her hand, dousing her with water . . . suddenly Helen connected Annie’s frantic repetition of the same signing into her hand with the water gushing out of the spigot. In that instant of time she realized that her teacher’s manipulation of her fingers and hand were not meaningless, it was telling her something, it was a word, it meant water. . . the meaning of a word dawned in Helen’s darkness.
The little girl’s painful confusion melted away the moment she understood what her teacher was telling her.
But the rigor of her adversity was the necessary prelude to her breakthrough.
Once we have understood that the grueling discipline we’ve been under is to teach us what we desperately need to know . . . The One who has seemed to be our enemy becomes our dearest friend. Annie Sullivan became in that instant, not only Helen’s closest friend, but her life companion who would open every door for Helen to walk through into all that she had the potential to become. . . This one, her teacher, spelling words into her fingers and hands had come to find her to bring her from where she was to where she was meant-to-be. That is exactly Who the Holy Spirit is to you and me.
That day Annie Sullivan wrote into her journal,
My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed! “ 
The one word that the little girl retained in her distant memory, the one connection she could make between language and object had suddenly came together with meaning. The world opened to her. The little girl grasped her teacher’s hand fiercely demanding, begging her to sign, to spell out for her every object that she could touch, hungry to know its word. Her family clung to her in tears realizing that the power of the scourge was broken.
As the meaning of words broke into Helen — Helen broke through, Helen began to realize the first edges of the wide-open world awaiting her.
All of our suffering lies on the dark side of the barrier, where we remain constrained by blind eyes and deaf ears unable to enter into what lies on the other side. The Teacher comes to teach us what He must in order to bring us from where we are to where we are meant-to-be.
How we see our Teacher, how or if we respond to Him, how or if we attribute meaning rather than randomness to His patient labor of communicating with us will determine how quickly He is able to take us through the barrier (the truth) into the reality (exceeding our present ability to anticipate) that awaits us on the other side.
Our Teacher has come.
We live in serious times. It is impossible to overestimate the imperative of learning how to understand what God is saying to us.
Adversity befalls us, but it is not something to be afraid of . . . it is the rigor of the prelude necessary to our next breakthrough.
With 64 nights of guests, I took the summer off. But the last or our well loved friends and family have left. Fall has come, tinging the air with cool mornings, bringing a taste of something new and crisp that my heart has longed for. . . to get back to this work.
I was inclined to take a little longer before plunging back into this teaching web-site, but I cannot tell you how stern the message has been that I have no time to loose.
I do so with the prayer that He (not I) will speak to you here, to shake you from whatever apathy or unbelief might cause you to sleep through the most telling days of your life.
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Helen Keller became a world-famous author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She traveled widely. Her ability to profoundly articulate the breadth and depth of her passionate beliefs stunned and challenged many. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes, a suffragist, a pacifist, and an amazing example (to me) of what it means to be brought from where you are to where you are meant-to-be.