At the age of 14, Erik Weihenmayer was gripped by fear – fear of the rare eye disease Retinoschisis that was robbing of him sight, but even greater, fear of all the things he would miss out on in life without his sight.
Weihenmayer, an adventurer, author and motivational speaker, addressed students, faculty, staff and members of the community during Troy University’s annual Helen Keller Lecture on Wednesday at the Claudia Crosby Theater on the Troy Campus.
“Fearing all of the things I would miss out on, that was more terrifying to me than the blindness itself,” Weihenmayer said.
Tired of building walls around himself and allowing the challenge of blindness to rob him of experiencing life, Weihenmayer signed up for a rock climbing class. Little did he know at the time that the class would lead him to scale some of the world’s highest peaks, including summiting Mt. Everest in 2001.
His adventures, including his most recent feat of kayaking the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, led him to co-found the “No Barriers” movement with the mission to help people with challenges face barriers head on and lead lives rich in meaning and purpose. His message and the movement’s motto is “What’s Within You is Stronger Than What’s in Your Way.”
“Accomplishments are fun to talk about, but I think what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle,” he told the lecture’s standing-room-only audience. “The struggle is about understanding the process of growth, change and transformation, and diving into that experience. Growth is tumultuous and it is not for the faint of heart.”
Recalling his training for the trek down the rapids of the Colorado River, Weihenmayer said he faced so many questions that had no answers. As a blind man, how would his guide be able to lead him through the rapids down the river? How would they communicate, knowing that the need for precise communication could mean the difference between successfully navigating through the rapids or slamming into rocks and going under water?
“There were days in those thousands and thousands hours of training over six years where you’re slamming into rocks and flipping over, panicking and pulling the skirt on my kayak,” he said. “Swimming for my life and getting out on the bank, I had to keep it positive and think about what I had learned. I learned why there aren’t that many blind kayakers in the world. I knew I had to continue. My ‘No Barriers’ pledge was to kayak the Grand Canyon, 277 miles. I didn’t do it to prove that blind people can do this or that necessarily, but I did it to live, to break out of the prisons in which we live and truly live.”
And while those adventures certainly provide their share of specific challenges, Weihenmayer said life presents everyone with challenges on a daily basis. It was that idea that led him to write, “The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles into Everyday Greatness,” a book he teamed with Dr. Paul G. Stoltz to write.
Through the duo’s research for the book, they discovered that people fall into three categories – quitters, campers or climbers.
“Quitters are self-explanatory, but campers are a fascinating group because they make up so much of the world,” he said. “There are those of us who start out climbing with excitement, hope and optimism, and then along that ascent things get in the way and we start to lose belief in ourselves and the cause. Or, we try something a little bit out of the box and we get shattered and beat back and we decide we never want to experience that kind of pain again, so we stop along the way. Or, we are plodding along doing our best and barriers keep getting in our way like brick walls and we get exhausted, lose our momentum and we get shoved to the side. We are now camping. Personally, we are starting to stagnate, but worse than that, all of our potential, all of our energy, all of our life force is lost to the world.”
Climbers represent a rare breed, he said.
“They are those of us who continue to figure out a way to grow, explore and challenge themselves every day of their lives. I think that is the question for us all, how do we climb when it makes so much more sense and is so much easier to be camping,” Weihenmayer said. “The beauty of it all is discovering the way you climb the mountains in your own life, overcoming challenges and adversity. When you live a ‘No Barriers’ lifestyle, you invite adversity into your life, but when you face those challenges head on and commit to climbing, it releases your full potential. I think if I could see today, I would be looking at a community of climbers right here.”
The Helen Keller Lecture Series, which began in 1995 as the vision of Dr. and Mrs. Jack Hawkins, Jr., was initiated to call attention to and raise awareness of the challenges of those with physical limitations, particularly those affecting sensory ability. Through the years, the lecture has also provided the opportunity to highlight those who have devoted their careers to meeting the needs of the sensory impaired and to celebrate the collaborative efforts and partnerships of Troy University and the agencies and individuals who serve these special individuals.
This year’s lecture was sponsored by the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, Health Center South, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, the Alabama Department of Mental Health, the Helen Keller Foundation, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, the Alabama State Department of Education, TROY Athletics and TROY’s College of Arts and Sciences, Sorrell College of Business, College of Communication and Fine Arts and College of Education.