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The Optimists

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The author, back in junior high, with her grandma, Tessie.

My late grandma Tessie was the ultimate optimist.

Growing up a poor, Jewish girl in famine-stricken Russia, around the time of the Russian Revolution, my grandma and her family could often scrounge up little food other than onions, which they'd fry up and eat meal after meal. You would think Tessie would come to hate that food, considering her onion overload. But to the contrary, onions were always a treat for my grandma back then--and even years later as an adult living in the United States.

Her love for something as measly as fried onions is just one small way she saw her world through rose-colored glasses. The same Tessie, who never met her father until she was 9, who lived through czarist Russia as a persecuted Jew, and who had seen countless loved ones die, including her beloved husband and a cherished son, that same Tessie never complained about life.

"Darling, I am the luckiest woman in the whole world," she once told me. "Many women who lose their husbands become not very sweet, but not me. I'm the happiest woman in the world."

I'm always amazed by the sense of perspective that certain people-like Grandma Tessie-possess, even those who have faced an uphill climb in life.

Perspective, it seems, has little or nothing to do with the cards you're dealt. In fact, I once read a study revealing that Africans, who live on the poorest continent, are more optimistic than inhabitants of almost any other locale in the world.

We all know people in our own lives whose resiliency allows them to come out the other end stronger for it, people who don't dwell on their own misfortune. These are the people who inspire me.

People like my late cousin, Eric, who faced a long battle with brain cancer and eventually succumbed to his illness in his late 30s. Despite his health struggles, Eric maintained a bright outlook and sense of humor throughout his life, and managed to complete college and law school, work as an attorney, get married, perform comic improv at hospitals and senior centers, and have a daughter, and then a son--who was born after Eric passed away. 

Eric's father, Ron, once spoke about his son's optimism with the following nugget of wisdom that I think about all the time. "The happiest people are not necessarily the people who are lucky enough to avoid problems," Ron said, "but rather the ones whose ability to cope increases at a more rapid rate than their problems do." 

And then there's Clemantine. I was lucky enough to meet Clemantine Wamariya, a young woman who had fled genocide at age 6 with her older sister during the Rwandan conflict in 1994. After escaping, Wamariya found refuge with a loving host family in Kenilworth, Ill. In 2006, I had the opportunity to interview Clemantine, who was one of 50 winning students--picked from 50,000 submissions--in Oprah Winfrey's national high school essay contest. The students were asked to answer the question: "How is Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's memoir Night relevant today?"

I will never forget Clemantine. She was poised, kind, easy to connect with, a woman wise way beyond her years. She never felt bad for her own plight, but wished only to move forward and tell her story to make the world a better place. During our interview, she told me the lessons her own mother had taught her as a little girl back in Rwanda. "She taught me to love, to just love people, to hug them," Clemantine said. "She taught me to love people not just because of what they look like or what they have, but just to love them because they are people."

Today, in her 20s, Clemantine, who is finishing a degree at Yale, advocates against genocide, teaching people about the lessons of love, peace, and kindness imparted to her by her mother a world away all those years ago.

Israelis, collectively, also share a beautiful sense of perspective. Despite all the terror and heartbreak they have faced during the country's 65 years in existence, Israelis persevere. When more than 1,000 rockets were fired into Southern Israel in November, I called to check in with my American friend who has made a home for herself in Israel. "Are people over there consumed by the violence?" I asked her, concerned for my friend and all our Israeli brothers and sisters. She said they talk about it, of course, but then they go on and live life because what else, really, can they do?

In his book Always Looking Up, actor, activist, and writer Michael J. Fox, stricken with Parkinson's disease more than 20 years ago, writes about his optimistic outlook, despite the advanced progression of his disease. He writes the following:

At the turn from our bedroom into the hallway, there is an old full-length mirror in a wooden frame. I can't help but catch a glimpse of myself as I pass. Turning fully toward the glass, I consider what I see. This reflected version of myself, wet, shaking, rumpled, pinched, and slightly stooped, would be alarming were it not for the self-satisfied expression pasted across my face. I would ask the obvious question, "What are you smiling about?" but I already know the answer: "It just gets better from here."

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