Back in the 1870s, at a mental institution near Boston, a young girl known as “Little Annie” was locked up in a cage down in the basement. Not only was she partially blind as a result of an infection, but the doctors had declared her to be hopelessly insane and incapable of a normal life—and since there was nothing they could do for her, they kept her isolated from the other inmates. However, there was an elderly nurse who believed in the dignity and value of all God’s children, and who felt she should try to do something for Little Annie, even though the girl would sometimes attack anyone who entered the cage, and other times completely ignore those who came to see her. Not letting this discourage her, the nurse began doing something very simple: every day she came and ate her lunch outside Annie’s cage, hoping her presence would indicate her love and interest. Annie gave her no acknowledgement, but the nurse didn’t give up. One day the nurse brought some brownies and left them outside the cage for Annie; the girl ignored them, but when the nurse came the next day, the brownies were gone—so the nurse began bringing some sort of treat for Little Annie every day. Soon afterwards the doctors noticed a significant change in Annie’s behavior; she was greatly improved, so they moved her upstairs with the other patients. She continued to get better, and finally the day came when this “hopeless case” was told she could go home (Illustrations Unlimited, p. 289). As she went on with her life, Little Annie never forgot what a kind and caring nurse had done for her, and decided she wanted to spend her life helping others in the same way. She became an instructor for the blind, developed new techniques for teaching the blind and the disabled, and helped promote the American Foundation for the Blind. However, Little Annie—whose full name was Anne Sullivan, and who was later called “The Miracle Worker”—was best known as the instructor of a blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller. Her supposedly hopeless life became a source of great help and inspiration to many people—all because an elderly nurse believed in her dignity and value, and took the time to act upon this belief. In the same way, there may be times in our lives when hope is in short supply; nevertheless, Jesus personally believes in each one of us—and His presence can make all the difference.
Fears, worries, and depression have always been part of the story of humanity; people in every age of history, and in virtually every circumstance of life, have at times struggled to find reasons for hope. The words of Job (7:1-4, 6-7) speak of the drudgery of life, of troubled nights and months of misery; Job had suffered terrible misfortune, and was convinced he would not see happiness again. Many people in Our Lord’s day also suffered—perhaps not so dramatically as Job, but their lives were far from easy (and they would consider our lifestyles as lavish and worthy of royalty). That’s why Jesus’ presence among them had such a great impact; through His miracles, exorcisms, and teachings, He offered hope; the Gospel (Mk 1:29-39) He preached truly was good news for people desperately in need of grace and encouragement. That’s why everyone was looking for Him when He went off to pray; that’s why the people wanted Him to stay with them—but as He said, His mission required Him to preach in the other villages, too. In his first Letter to the Corinthians (9:16-19, 22-23), St. Paul had a similar dedication to his mission; instead of seeking any personal benefit, he wanted to share the Gospel with as many people as possible because he knew of the world’s desperate need for salvation. This same need exists more urgently than ever at the beginning of the 21st century.
About thirty years ago a beginning high school teacher in Michigan wrote, “Many people have told me that I will be wasting my time teaching, and that these kids will continue to be just as wild, disobedient, and disrespectful as before. However, with the grace of God, maybe I can reach them and persuade them to use the tremendous potential which they have” (homily notebook, “Hope”). This is the attitude the Lord wants us to adopt—for living in this spirit will not only benefit others, but also ourselves. One of the best ways of overcoming depression is to stop thinking about our own unhappiness, and instead look for ways to make someone else happy; one of the best ways of finding meaning in life is to dedicate ourselves not to our own pleasure, but to the well-being of others. The more we learn to see Christ in the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering, the more we’ll be able to appreciate and call forth their great dignity as persons—and this approach to life has a great potential for filling us with a sense of purpose and peace.
God has given each one of us the ability to work quiet miracles—probably not by performing physical healings as Jesus did, but by touching the hearts of others with our love; not by driving out evil spirits, as the Lord did, but by helping liberate people from their feelings of worthlessness and shame; not by holding the crowds spellbound with our preaching, as was the case with Christ, but by giving suffering persons hope by our gentle words of love and acceptance. We can make a difference in someone’s life by a friendly smile, a genuine expression of concern, a willingness to do a simple favor, a sincere expression of thanks, an act of thoughtful kindness, or a gesture of respect as simple as spending some time with a person considered hopeless. Anne Sullivan’s life was forever changed because an elderly nurse showed her some loving attention for half-an-hour a day. Anne herself was thus enabled to fulfill her mission of educating a blind and deaf girl named Helen—and the story of Helen Keller’s success in overcoming her disabilities and becoming a great author and lecturer became a source of inspiration and hope for millions of Americans. A simple act of love on our part can trigger a chain reaction of grace, thus helping make God’s Kingdom more present in our world. Sometimes life can be very hard, and it becomes easy for us to grow discouraged, and perhaps even to despair—but if we instead choose to place our hope in Jesus, and allow Him to use us as His instruments, He will be with us, sustaining us, helping us, and filling our lives with meaning and peace.