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
Many of you have received my “Keeping the Faith” via email or by reading in your local paper. Some of that will change in 2019. I will continue to produce content for my local Gatehouse Media papers and exclusively for Digital First Media (The Detroit News, et. al.).
My columns will be available here on my site and through social media as usual. Some smaller papers will no longer be able to carry the column, and email distribution will end.
All the best to you in the New Year, and Keep the Faith.
I hope it’s not too soon to say it, but you probably spent too much money this holiday season. It’s understandable, and I am not without compassion for you or your bank statement. Your list was no doubt long, those on it probably had expensive tastes, and you were expected to spend more than you had.
You have been trained to behave like this, after all, as have I and the several generations before us. By busting the bank each year, we do exactly what we have been conditioned to do, for somewhere along the line we shifted from being a contributing society to being a consumer society. Buying, acquiring, and getting is the truest mark of modern America.
Over time, we have been acclimatized to a life of covetousness, desire, and envy (There is also that phrase I hear so often from the sphere of marketing: “You deserve this!”). And if we are fortunate enough to already have in our possession that wished-for item, we want more of it – or at least a more shiny, more expensive, more up-to-date model of the same.
Is it any wonder that we are the most addictive society in the world? We substitute feeling good for fulfillment; pleasure for contentment; desire for happiness; and hunger for gratification. We have been trained to seek euphoric highs, insatiable cravings, and to never be satisfied.
There is a Proverb from the Hebrew Scriptures that reads as a prayer. “O God, I beg a favor from you,” the writer asks. “Give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.” The writer recognizes the twin dangers of wealth. Too much of it, and it can ruin a person, converting he or she into someone grotesque, arrogant, and greedy. If one has too little wealth, it can lead to desperation and poverty.
This ancient wisdom is something that we, all these centuries later, have begun to talk about again: Balance, equity, and one of today’s popular conceptions, “minimalism.” We are learning that the endless wanting and conspicuous consumption of the “gimme generation” will not satisfy us. It’s not good for us – or the planet – no matter what all those commercials and pop-up ads tell us.
So, I make you this guarantee for your new year. You will be happier, freer, and more satisfied with life if you rid yourself of all excess, and give up the empty compulsion for more. It will be like losing weight (It’s no coincidence that there is link between our consumerism and our obesity; we are the heaviest country in the Northern Hemisphere).
By consuming less – with both our diets and our credit cards – we will feel better, will be lighter on our feet, will be in far better shape, and much more healthy. In the words of the icon Henry David Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify. And once you have secured the necessaries of life, then you can confront the true problems of life with freedom.”
Photo by Emile Seguin