The painful foundation of your legacy
The luck of the Irish somehow seemed to evade little Johanna.
She was born in 1866 in Massachusetts, the oldest child of illiterate, unskilled, and impoverished immigrants who came to the United States from Ireland during the Great Famine.
At the age of five, she contracted trachoma, a bacterial eye disease, which created painful infections and over time made her nearly blind. Her mother died when she was eight. Two years later, her father abandoned the children for fear he could not raise them on his own.
Johanna and her younger brother, James, were sent to an overcrowded “poor house.” The conditions were so horrible there that James, who suffered from a weak hip ailment, died just three months into their stay. Johanna stayed there for four years after his death. She had eye operations that temporarily relieved the pain in her eyes, but ultimately proved ineffective.
Because of her blindness, Johanna had no skills in reading, writing, or sewing. The only work she could find was as a housemaid. But even this position did not last long.
Another blind resident at the poor house told her of schools for the blind. When she was fourteen, an inspector visited the house. She convinced him to allow her to leave and enroll at a school for the blind in Boston. She began her studies on October 7, 1880.
During her first years at the school, her rough manners caused a lot of humiliation for her. But she managed to connect with a few teachers and made progress with her learning. Another series of eye operations significantly improved her vision.
In June 1886, at the age of twenty, she graduated as valedictorian of her class. She stated in her valedictorian address,
“Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it.”
Let’s pause the story for a moment and ponder this.
Think of Johanna’s life up to this point. She’s born dirt poor to immigrants. She goes blind. Her mother dies. Her father abandons her. She’s tossed into an orphanage, where life is undoubtedly severe. If ever there were a school of hard knocks, Johanna was a student.
And here she is, speaking of going into “active life” “cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly.”
What would have become of Johanna had she been bitter about the cards life had dealt her? How would she have viewed the world had she chosen to be a victim?
Compare your life to Johanna’s. Are you as cheerful, hopeful, and earnest as she in pursuing your purpose? And does she leave you with any excuse?
Now let’s continue with Johanna’s story.
The summer after she graduated, the director of her school was contacted by a man who was in search of a teacher for his seven-year-old blind and deaf daughter. The director immediately recommended Johanna. She began her work on March 3, 1887 at the man’s home in Alabama.
She had a rough go at it from the beginning. The young girl “hit, pinched, and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth.”
Remember that Johanna, considering her background, was undoubtedly no stranger to ill-behaved children. She persisted. She finally gained control of the child after she and the child moved into a small cottage, where they lived together. Over time, she won the child’s heart and trust.
Initially, Johanna started with a strict schedule based on academic standards at the time. She quickly adapted her teachings, however, after seeing they did not suit the child. She began teaching the child vocabulary based solely on what she was interested in. This worked well, and the child progressed quickly.
A year later, after providing a solid foundation for the child, Johanna convinced the child’s parents to allow their daughter to attend the same school from which Johanna had graduated. Johanna and the child moved there together, where Johanna continued tutoring the child. The child soon became famous for her remarkable progress.
The child grew into a young lady and continued her education, ultimately becoming the first deaf and blind person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
That young lady later expressed the story of her life and that of her mentor when she famously said,
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
That young lady, of course, was Hellen Keller. Her mentor? Johanna Mansfield Sullivan Macy, better known as Anne Sullivan.
Let me ask again: What would have happened had Anne Sullivan become a bitter victim and constantly wished for a different life?
Let me put it a different way: What if Anne could have snapped her fingers and magically changed her life to remove all hardship from it?
She may have had a more comfortable life, but the world never would have had Helen Keller, because Helen wouldn’t have had Anne Sullivan.
Now let me ask you: What if you could snap your fingers and magically make all your deepest wounds and hardest challenges disappear — along with the lessons you’ve learned and the character you’ve forged because of them?
If you could take away your deepest wounds and hardest challenges, you would also take your greatest contributions. For it is precisely your wounds and challenges that prepare you for your irreplaceable gift to humanity.
Your wounds and challenges are the foundation of your legacy. Without them, you would have a more comfortable life — and a drastically reduced legacy.
The pain from your past has uniquely qualified you to serve in the present. Embrace your past struggles, for they have led you to your present purpose.
Johanna didn’t need luck to succeed — she made her own luck by leveraging her struggles into her purpose. And so it is with you.