Helen Keller

Actor and director Edward Norton, described his father as intellectually adventurous and socially contributive. I rolled those words around in my head for a while after hearing them. They resonated perfectly with me. Those words are exactly what I would like people to say about me at my funeral.

Intellectually adventurous

My take on the words intellectually adventurous is that we do not let fear hold us back when it comes to learning and discussing new things. We don’t worry about looking stupid or making mistakes. We dip our toe into any subject that grabs us.

I love to learn. I especially enjoy talking to people and plucking seeds of wisdom from their personal stories. I like to hear what it is like living in other countries. I like to hear why a certain religion resonates with someone. I learn resilience by listening as a woman tells me of her childhood suffering and how it gave her strength and independence today.

I let curiosity lead me to engagement. As a child, I had many fears. I often felt self-conscious. My group of friends in middle school and high school boosted my self-esteem and applied just enough positive peer pressure for me to try out for band, cheer-leading and pom pom. When I made each team, my confidence rose.

My fears of looking stupid quieted a little. I started reading books like The Road Less Traveled by Dr. M. Scott Peck. My friends had mohawks AND perfectly coiffed bobs. I listened to alternative music and went to Spain for two weeks as a senior.

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. — Helen Keller

Intellectually adventurous. I craved meeting people with different backgrounds. I wanted to go places with the most opportunity for diversity and interesting experiences. I attended a huge university. I lived in Chicago for five years in my twenties.

Today I still devour books and ask questions of anyone who lets me.

Socially Contributive

As a young person, I remember being deeply moved by Helen Keller’s story. I learned the sign language alphabet in the back of the book. I wanted to help people like Helen and Mary Ingalls of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Both were blind.

In high school, I shadowed a kindergarten teacher and a lawyer, each for six weeks. I remember the kindergarten teacher telling me we have to brush some of the student’s hair and we have to loan them coats because their parents don’t or can’t take care of them.

In college, I taught the children of migrant workers in the summer. Some of them had been to 29 different schools in under five years.

In my early 40s, I volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. I fell in love with the kids and their parents as I worked to find the best living conditions for the children. Each person had a story to share. Each did their best with the resources they had.

Everyone’s lives were/are fascinating to me (intellectually adventurous). I want to do things that contribute to other’s good. I want to make them feel less alone.

Interestingly, I recently realized contributing socially, helps me. For a while, pre-divorce and just after divorce, I felt most comfortable alone. In the last few years, I learned how much of a charge I get out of spending time with others. I want to interact and give my time and energy to the betterment of others.

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. — Helen Keller

My job as a paraprofessional in special education grants me the perfect opportunity to contribute. Writing weekly posts on brendaknowles.com gives me the chance to share recent nuggets of growth I’ve stumbled upon. My new marriage and added family members allow me to belong to other communities where I get to contribute. My children have my heart and mind permanently in their corner.

In committing to help and heal others, social contribution heals me.


How would you like people to describe you at your funeral? What words or phrases really hit the mark when it comes to what you aspire to become?