A Conversation with an Immigrant

Optimism: I don’t hear much of that anymore.

The word is an invention to describe a theological attitude popularized by Gottfried Leibniz, the brilliant German scientist, mathematician, philosopher and theologian. Attempting to solve the problem of evil in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, Leibniz declared, in effect, that God fashioned us, and the world we inhabit, to be the best of all possible worlds. Even if it didn’t seem that way all the time, we would come to realize it sooner or later, and should behave in both our quotidian and spiritual pursuits as if it was.

Voltaire, the great French cynic, lampooned this in his novel Candide, ou l’Optimisme (which means either Candide: or All the Best; or Candide: or The Optimist). Despite all the terrible, dreadful, unreasonable, ludicrously awful things the characters suffer, the pedantic Dr. Pangloss maintains that ours is the best of all possible worlds, if we could only understand that.

Of course, if you’ve read Candide, you know that Voltaire concluded the novel with Candide saying we should all go home and tend our gardens. Was Voltaire being sarcastic here? Or did he, like so many of the rest of us who try to find some reason for unreasonable tragedy, throw up his hands in defeat?

I remember a brief period in my childhood when I was optimistic that I would grow up, write science fiction and see my work on the same shelves with those authors who were so important to me as a reader. Then three things happened that I really, really couldn’t understand.

  1. My parents separated and eventually divorced.
  2. My high school girlfriend, whom I dearly loved, broke up with me and married some other guy.
  3. My science fiction was rejected so much that, when I finally got that “if you do this and that and revise it a little bit, I just may publish this” response, I couldn’t do it. I was exhausted, defeated by the people who are paid to say “no” most of the time.

I became pessimistic because I felt really bad when my expectations weren’t met (who doesn’t?). It was rational, I concluded, to expect the worst, because you could gain the satisfaction of being right more often than when you were wrong, or, when bad things didn’t happen, you could at least feel relieved.

But life is not merely messy with disappointment. It is spiced with the occasional miracle, which I will define here as akin to serendipity: a favorable occurrence that either has no adequate explanation, or seems accidental, a product of chance.

Among those that happened to me are

  1. the fact that my long lost high school girlfriend and I not only met each other later, but we were able to marry and, for the last seven years and counting, live as close as either of us have been to “happily ever after.”
  2. My recovery from two heart attacks, and my wife being cancer free. For us to be able to say so far, so good, without knowing precisely why is…pretty good.
  3. Becoming a correspondent for the New York Times, even if the experience was not what it may be cracked up to be. One day when I had other things on my mind, a section editor called me on the telephone. Though I had been writing for the Book Review because the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s book editor became editor there (and she liked my stuff enough to bring me in), getting a regular gig with the greatest newspaper in the world, without asking for one or going through any of the hoops that would produce such a result, is considered miraculous by most journalists. I would also agree, though I must add that such a position does not do what all the Times editors insist it must (to justify the newspaper exploiting people for low compensation), and that is take you to a great place professionally. The correspondent for the New York Times became a former correspondent for the New York Times.

A person of faith would say, a la Leibniz, that there are certainly more miracles in my past, everything from finding a parking space in the right place at the right time, to not getting jumped walking in a dreary part of Atlantic City, and other near misses with calamity. Our sons are healthy and secure. The car starts. The dog likes me.

For all that, and more, I am grateful, and a major reason for writing this blog is nurturing and maintaining that gratitude. It’s too easy to forget how much there is to appreciate, savor and enjoy in the short time we strut and fret upon the stage.

This said, I don’t hear much optimism these days, in the news, in my conversations with friends, from politicians. The previous president made a point of speaking about the wonderfully courageous possibilities of hope. The current president speaks of different things.

The country is more than merely divided over political issues, free speech, civil rights, gender discrimination, environmental science, the role of religion, income inequality, the high murder rates among inner city adolescents and children and moral quandaries. We are at the point at which we are like motorists who slow down even further to look at the horrible car crash that apparently caused all the traffic on our highway to come to a crawl. We not only can’t look away from the catastrophe of the hour, we know too well that another is waiting just around the bend.

On top of that is a longing for all of it just go away in fashion that makes sense. We yearn for a playground monitor to come in, break up the fight, send the naughty kids to opposite ends of the playground and tell us to go back to what we were doing.

We don’t have much faith in ourselves to see these difficult times to a moment when we can feel grateful about who we are, where we live and what we want to do with our lives.

Well, not all of us.

Though I have been born and raised in the United States, I know that, if things had been a little bit different in Eastern Europe, I would have been some other country’s citizen.

Most of my relatives come from Austria, Poland and Russia. My grandmother, who left her Russian village when she was seven years old, once told me of people asking the village sorcerer for help locating a missing horse. She said the sorcerer made a small circle on the ground with barley grains, touched the center and announced that the horse would be in the center of a barley field, eating its way out. According to my grandmother’s account, the villagers searched the fields and found the horse exactly as the sorcerer described.

She married an accountant who bought stocks during the Depression. My other grandmother married a window washer.

My grandparents came here, as most immigrants do, for a better life, and they found it, though they never stopped speaking their language, using it to have conversations that I was not intended to hear.

I have lived in three communities in which immigrants formed an obvious constituency. The first was in college, where students from other countries frequently gathered socially so that they did not feel so much alone. The second was in a part of Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia, where every second person I met was Israeli. The third is in Northern Virginia. Just about every day I see someone from another country, hear a language I can’t understand, and notice styles of dress that were not common where I was raised. During the brief years I taught English in a public high school here, I was fiercely proud of students from Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa who were motivated, not just to get good grades in my classes, but to understand how different this country is from theirs.

Because my wife and I are doing some simple upgrades around our house, and I am the opposite of a fix-up, D.I.Y., handy type. I’ve noticed that most of those who have painted the walls, trimmed back the tree, set the kitchen tile, wired lighting fixtures, repaired old appliances and delivered new ones, either speak with a foreign accent, or use a language I can’t understand.

Are they immigrants, as my grandparents were? If so, I share some concern. Depending on where you live, how you dress, how you speak and the nature of your employment, you may find yourself a target for animosity that you did nothing to create.

It’s never been easy to be an immigrant in the United States. There is no street paved with gold leading to social acceptance, economic self-determination and a “pursuit” of happiness.

Best of all possible worlds? For some, who could look back on what they experienced as a defining, character building struggle.  But for those who did not experience success? What happened to them when their families shattered, they were torn from their loved ones, their best efforts were relentlessly rejected?

I had such things in mind when I talked to a person working on my home who quite freely told me he was an immigrant. It took him nearly twenty years to become a citizen and he had mixed feelings about voting in his first Presidential election. “It was not a good choice,” he said.

He told me about jobs he held in different parts of the country. In one city, he said, “they don’t care were you come from, as long as you show up and do the work.” This country, he insisted, was so much better than the place from which he came “because of the people here. They will teach you a trade. They will give you a job. They will help you become a citizen so you can have a family and raise your children with better than what you had.”

Was he as concerned as I was about the mood in our country, especially toward immigrants?

“It will work out,” he said. “That is what I have learned in the twenty years it took for me to become a citizen. People will find a way to make things work. That’s the way it is in America. Here you have a chance to find the way. Other places…not always possible.”

So maybe there’s another “use” for our immigrants, and that is as a reminder that what they value about our country is still there, right in front of our dour, cynical faces.

Here we really can make things better. Here we really can work things out. We may not find the best of all possible worlds, but we just might make our own worth living in.

You don’t have to call that a miracle, but if you do, I won’t object.




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