Each year the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind grants the Holman Prize, a $25,000 award given to a blind individual to adventurously explore the world. The inaugural recipient was Ahmet Ustunel, a Turkish national who has always refused the label of “handicapped” or “disabled.”
As a child he did the things all kids do: Rode a bicycle, walked to school, and went fishing with his father. It was those fishing trips that first drew him to the water, to kayaking, where he found a freedom he never knew elsewhere. He brought this love for the sea to the United States when he immigrated to become a teacher of the blind; and it was his love for the sea that earned him the Holman Prize.
The money was used to fund Ahmet’s kayak crossing of the Bosphorus Strait, and the creation of a navigational system that employed sounds, vibrations, and other non-optical communications to keep him safe. He needed it. The Bosphorus, the geographical boundary between Asia and Europe, is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, and is packed with seagoing vessels.
Some thought this venture a fool’s errand bordering on the suicidal, but Ahmet persisted, “with all the stubbornness of a goat.” He lashed his white, red-tipped, walking cane to the bow of his kayak, and off he went, successfully circumnavigating the waterway for its twenty terrifying miles. His success, however, was not primarily due to the technological or monetary assistance he received – though these were needed. By his account, it was an energizing hope.
Hope is an ethereal idea. As Saul of Tarsus wrote, speaking of the greatest spiritual principles, “These will remain: Faith, hope, and love.” Yet, all three defy easy explanation. And hope might be the most elusive of all, because it comes across so often as gullibility or naïveté.
“I hope to graduate in the spring,” one says, whether he or she has studied for finals or not. “I hope to retire at sixty,” a person might chirp, irrespective of how much financial planning has been done. “I hope that things get better,” another retorts, all while watching as a spectator, never getting involved in the actual betterment of “things.” It’s no wonder that hope is hard to grasp, given how it is used as a synonym for wishful thinking.
But let’s take a lesson from Ahmet Ustunel, or from anyone who understands what hope is. It is fuel. It is resiliency. It is a burning “fire in the bones” that moves a person forward, forward into the unknown, not into an idealized future, for the future is impossible to know. In face of this unknown, hope empowers, motivates, and pushes a person onward.
Certainty does not accompany hope, but persistence – “the stubbornness of a goat” – does. And while having hope doesn’t mean that life will turn out like we plan, it does mean we have the wherewithal to press on; and sometimes pressing on is what we need the most.
Photo by Soren Jorgensen