One cheer for optimism

San Miguel de Allende at times feels like Medicare Junction. It can be full of bad news, illnesses and other problems that tax one’s optimism while, ironically, reminding us how essential optimism is to a sane, healthy life–however many years of it we have left.

The, hmm, “advanced” demographics of a retirement outpost like San Miguel–hell, among the expats here someone in their mid-50s is considered practically a juvenile–inevitably bring along personal and health catastrophes, including death.

Since we moved here seven years ago, Stew, 65 and I, 64, have learned a lexicon of medical problems, procedures and illnesses we had never heard of or encountered before.

Alzheimer’s–naturally–but also Parkinson’s, Gehrig’s, Chron’s, Hodgkins’, Bell’s and countless other ailments with someone’s last name attached to them, plus the gory details of fractured these-and-those, which usually require a Home Depot-full of nuts, bolts and plates to mend, followed by months-long convalescence.

Just like with retirees elsewhere, in San Miguel a simple lunch can morph into an impromptu  symposium on ailments, symptoms, and aches and pains, and the best doctors to take care of them.

By the time dessert arrives your guts are churning as you anxiously palpate yourself for any suspicious lumps or sores. Do I still have all ten toes?

Indeed, when Stew and I moved to San Miguel, we subscribed to the Mayo Clinic Newsletter but recently decided we’d read enough about everything that can go wrong with the human body. It’s bad enough to monitor real problems without obsessing about myriad other anatomical malfunctions, of which there are thousands.

Death has crashed our circle of friends in San Miguel during the past six months. One friend died of AIDS at 57, a friend’s husband succumbed to cancer at 75. A few other friends await the outcome of  various incurable cancers.

It’s easy–and normal–to be pessimistic and downright pissed with all these bad news, specially since you might be the next target. I’m certainly not immune from blue periods or feelings of helplessness.

Except there’s no point in embracing pessimism as a life perspective.

It could be my first-generation immigrant genes. Leaving your country and going to an unknown spot–across an ocean or a border, or on the other side of the exit door of an airport–immigration requires nothing if not optimism.

As you await to take that leap you keep whispering to yourself: “I’m not one-hundred percent sure what’s on the other side, but there we go.”

A few months ago I visited several of my junior-high classmates in Cuba who didn’t take that chance and instead held on to circumstances they thought were surer or safer options. I don’t blame anyone for their choices, but despite the fears and hardships migration entailed for my family and me–the streets were not paved with gold after all–I’m sure glad we came to the U.S.

Optimism beats pessimism every time.

In San Miguel, Stew and I have learned, almost instinctively, to gravitate not to friends who are worry- or trouble-free–we don’t know any of those–but to those who keep looking forward, a key ingredient of optimism.

On a cruise to Antarctica four years ago, we met a woman who is now in her eighties. Her husband didn’t want to go on the cruise, so the heck with him, she went by herself. She turned out to be not only one of the most intellectually engaged and well-read people I’ve known, but one who is also in great physical shape thanks to weekly tennis games, Pilates exercises and three- or four-mile walks around town and, of course, standing appointments at the beauty parlor.

For 2013 she is looking into a trip to Mongolia to visit a friend. Stew and I considered going along  except we don’t know what’s there to see in Mongolia except taciturn yaks and camels trudging through sand storms.

Even after the grievous loss of her husband of 55 years, another friend is slowly relaunching her life as a single woman. She is going back to her photography, a lifelong hobby she’d put on hold after her tragedy, and is now talking about taking acting lessons. Sometime in high school someone told her she had some talent. I look forward to seeing her on stage. Next year she’s also visiting France with some friends.

Optimism–to keep looking ahead–is not a denial of reality or a lack of smarts, but the only choice that makes sense even after some of life’s serious blows. Think of it: What other rational choice is there?


8 thoughts on “One cheer for optimism

  1. In addition to being an enjoyable read (as usual), this is one of your posts that actually throws out some gently offered suggestions of potentially real value to folks – including me. I'm prone to negativity and pessimism (if not outright cynicism), but I'm still able to see the illogic of such an attitude and value of a more positive outlook, with an occasional reminder and maybe a little prodding from kindly others. Thanks.


  2. We all remain optimistic that you will eventually get a new place in Melaque, though “Why Melaque?” remains an imponderable your fans will have to think about for a while longer. al


  3. Thank you. We all go through flat spots and the trick is getting to the other side. Cynics pretend to be very clever and “realistic” but ultimately it's a counterproductive take on the world. al


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