Here is the full text of Liz Murray’s talk: For the Love of Possibility at TEDxYouth conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Liz Murray on For the Love of Possibility (TEDxYouth)
Hello! Good Morning TEDx San Diego! Hey! So good to be here.
Today, I want to talk to you about one of the great loves of my life which is the love of possibility. And what I mean by that is the passion that you have inside of you to create the results that you know that you are meant to create in this world.
And in order to do that, I want to share with you a little bit about my journey of going from being a homeless person on the streets of New York City and transforming my life and going on to Harvard.
And another piece I want to share with you — Actually, to start that conversation is to talk to you a bit today about one of my heroes, who is someone who has passed away who was with us as a young man and his name was Ben Underwood.
Ben Underwood is someone who became famous to us in this world because he was someone who we labeled as blind, but he actually had the ability to see in a different way. He had something called echolocation which you’ve heard about before with dolphins and bats. He, like some people who don’t have sight, found a way to create sound waves. He would — you know, some people pound their foot — he would actually use a clicking noise in his mouth to send sound waves bouncing off the walls around him so that he could actually navigate his way around the world.
I know it sounds crazy, but if you go on YouTube you can see tons of videos of Ben navigating his way around even though he had actually no eyes. And he’s an incredible person to me for a few reasons.
And one is I would watch these videos of Ben and be so moved by him because any day of the week that you went to his house, you could watch Ben and you would not be able to tell that he was blind. You would watch him run up and down the stairs in his home. His mother, Aquanetta, would call down to him, and he would get her things from her dresser upstairs, he would ride his bike around the neighborhood. He would hold the door open for people because he was able to make a noise that sounded a little like this [make sounds] send sound waves off and essentially see in a different way.
Now, scientists became fascinated by Ben. And they came from everywhere to study him. You would see scientists, and academics, and reporters would gather around Ben and they would put him through a series of tests, and you would watch them put a telephone on the table, or a plate, or something, and he would click and he would be able to tell you what was in front of him.
So people became fascinated by Ben’s story, but that’s not what moved me so much about Ben’s story. There was something else that was different about Ben that really touched my heart.
Now as much as I understand that people are fascinated at the result that he accomplished in his life, which was, let’s be straight, was incredible, what I was curious about in watching him was what is the thinking that gets somebody to create that kind of result in their lives? What is it inside of a person that refuses to say: “I will label myself as blind?” And find another way?
The answer to that question is something that moved me to tears when I learned about Ben’s story. And what that is, was a conversation that took place between Ben and his mother the day of his surgery.
Now, he was two weeks shy of his third birthday, and his mother had put him through intense chemotherapy because he had had cancer in both eyes. And, she had a choice to make: “Do I give Ben a ton of chemotherapy and keep risking his life and maybe save his eyes? Or do I remove his eyes entirely? And if I do, he’ll live, but he’ll have no sight.”
She made the tough call. They removed his eyes. And I’m just going to ask you for one moment to imagine, if you could, what you would say to your three-year old if they woke up from surgery without their eyes? What could you possibly say?
So I listened carefully at the words his mother Aquanetta chose to share. And what she did was, as soon as Ben woke up and said, “Mom, I can’t see,” she immediately said to him, “Ben, yes, you can.”
And in her own words, she said, “I took his little hands and I placed them on my cheeks and I said, “Ben you can see with your hands.” And then I said, “Ben, here,” and I gave him my arm, and I let him smell my skin. And she said: “Ben, you can smell my skin, and you can see with your smell.” And then I whispered in his ear: “Ben, you can absolutely see. You can see with your ears.”
And one, two, three, Aquanetta, his mother, went through the various ways in which Ben could see. And so, in teaching Ben to refuse to label himself as blind, she set his mind in motion in the search of a greater possibility. He began to ask himself not “Why can’t I see?”, but “In what ways can I see?”