People all over the world know the story of Helen Keller, the deaf-blind girl Annie Sullivan taught to communicate by spelling letters on her hands, whose story was depicted in the play and movie The Miracle Worker. What most people don’t know is the story of how Helen’s parents found Annie Sullivan in the first place: Helen’s mother, Kate (who happened to be a cousin of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general), had been inspired by a story of the successful education of another deaf blind girl, Laura Bridgman, which she read in Charles Dickens’ American Notes. So in 1886 she and Helen’s father, Arthur, traveled from their home in Alabama to Baltimore to find Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an otolaryngologist, for advice.
He, in turn, referred them to Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the one who invented the telephone), who was working with deaf children at the time. He, in turn, advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind where Laura Bridgman herself had been educated. So they traveled to Boston and found Michael Anaganos, the school’s director, who asked a former student, Annie Sullivan (herself visually impaired and only 20 years old), to become Helen’s teacher.
If we pause for a minute to consider all the obstacles Arthur and Kate Keller had to overcome to find and follow this convoluted path to Annie Sullivan—in the late 1800s no less—we’re led to conclude that they must have had an abundance of the very same stuff that enabled Helen herself not only to learn to communicate but also to become the first blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree ever (at Radcliffe), to read Braille (not only in English but also French, German, Greek, and Latin), to write and publish numerous books, to campaign for women’s suffrage, for worker’s rights, for socialism, and even to help found the ACLU—namely, resolve.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WISH AND A DETERMINATION
Wish-making is a passive activity in which the wisher hands responsibility for the wish’s achievement to an outside force—either God, Fate, destiny, or luck. Not that wish-makers don’t also take action to achieve their desires—but if their desires remain wished-for only, their drive to achieve them tends to encounter limits beyond which it will not go.
Prayer in most Western religions usually comes in the form of a wish, or a request, of God to grant a desire. Prayer in Nichiren Buddhism, in contrast, occurs as a vow, or a determination, you make to yourself. When you firmly resolve to accomplish something the experience is quite different than when you merely wish for it. When you firmly resolve to accomplish something—even something you have no idea how to accomplish—you immediately become charged with the intent to act.
“At such a time,” Nichiren Daishonin writes, “the three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat.” In other words, people of wisdom know to anticipate obstacles when they begin actively striving toward a goal. Confident people welcome them, recognizing them as signs of a strong resolve and therefore likely success. Obstacles arise in the face of strong resolve because strong resolve motivates powerful, effective action—which foments resistance because most people, places, and things are waterlogged with inertia.
SUMMONING UP A POWERFUL RESOLVE
If a powerful resolve is the key to victory, then, how can you best summon it up? You have to do three things:
- Care about your goal passionately. How do you think Arthur and Kate Keller summoned up the resolve to find help for their daughter when they had to travel across the American country wilderness of 1886 without really having any idea if they’d find the answers they sought? If you don’t or can’t care about your goal passionately enough to summon up the resolve necessary to accomplish it, you should re-evaluate why it’s your goal in the first place. If resolve is the key to victory, motivation is the key to resolve.
- Ignore the odds against you. In this incompetent people actually have a paradoxically significant advantage over competent people: an inability to recognize their own incompetence. How is this an advantage? Because the incompetence of incompetent people extends to their ability to predict their likelihood of success. Incompetent people therefore tend to believe they can accomplish things that they most likely can’t, which enables them to ignore the voices in their heads that tell them their goal is unattainable. If in the process of striving toward their goal they actually acquire the competence they need to achieve it (admittedly, a big if) they may ultimately have a better chance of accomplishing their goal than someone who started out with enough competence to recognize how unlikely achieving his or her goal was in the first place and so never tried. Sometimes it takes the kind of blind optimism of the incompetent to outlast the obstacles that confront you.
- Prepare yourself to endure. How many times should you get up after being knocked down? Once, twice, three times? How about until you’re dead. If one strategy doesn’t work, rack your brain to find another. And another. And another. Resolve, like belief, is an inexplicable but irresistible force that lives in every single one of us. We all have the power to summon up the inflexible will to win. Even when you lack a plan or can’t find the path to your goal, take solace and encouragement from the fact that resolve is the fuel that drives the engine of accomplishment and that we all have an inexhaustible supply. It will only stop flowing when we shut it off ourselves. People often make the mistake of allowing their resolve to fade when they fail to accomplish a goal in a particular time frame. But people who succeed often do so because they continue past the point where they expected to have already succeeded but didn’t.
JUST HOW POWERFUL IS RESOLVE, REALLY?
In an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract, I described feeling indignation over my ex-girlfriend’s continuing to ask favors from me even after we’d broken up, which “finally reached a peak…causing me to make a sudden and angry determination that the next time she asked me for a favor, I’d refuse. [And] at that exact moment, the phone rang.” It was her asking me for a favor.
Do our determinations somehow spread themselves outward into the ether the instant they’re made, sometimes instantaneously returning resistance as my determination to refuse my ex-girlfriend favors did me? Are all things so invisibly yet intrinsically interconnected that such communication is really possible? A fundamental principle of Buddhism says yes. I’ve had other similar experiences that suggest it might be so, but I can’t tell if this phenomenon represents true cause and effect or only remarkable coincidence. The latter seems frankly more likely to me—but only because I can imagine no mechanism by which the former could occur (which, of course, isn’t really a good reason to be closed to the idea). And yet…I have to admit to being tantalized by the possibility that determinations we make with a real and powerful intent to act (rather than mere wishes we hope some outside force will grant) could be this powerful. Radio waves are invisible, too, after all, but clear evidence of their existence becomes apparent whenever we turn on a radio. On the other hand, I don’t want to be guilty of magical thinking. Have you had such apparent coincidences occur in your life? How do you interpret them?
In the end, though, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. We don’t actually need our determination to reach out into the universe invisibly in order to succeed. We only need it to reach out visibly through our actions, and the determination that resides inside our minds and hearts is enough to accomplish that. Determination in the hearts and minds of two parents was all that was needed to find a teacher for a deaf blind girl. And determination in the heart and mind of that deaf blind girl was all that was needed for her to learn to speak.
Next week: The Three Realms Of Confidence