Welcome to the holiday season in Mexico – a time of reflection, resolutions for the New Year and the interregnum between serial disappointments.
It occurred to me the other day at a holiday family gathering that by almost anyone’s account I am a failure. Everything that I’ve seriously attempted has ended in ruin. I won’t give you the complete laundry list (as that would require a book) but it includes two failed restaurants, countless failed relationships, bankruptcy, homelessness and a spectacularly failed law career.
My life has mostly been a recursive of regrets, but the schadenfreude it brings to my enemies among the Ignorati, strangely, makes me happy. I always aim to please.
I am at best a C-list academic and writer. The odds of this changing in a positive way, in an upwardly mobile way, are infinitesimal. But it could happen. Success in life is, after all, mostly luck. I mean this literally and not rhetorically.
Had, for example, Donald Trump been born into a poor family of cobblers, he would not be our president, he would be a cobbler. Perhaps the king of cobblers, but still a cobbler.
As luck would have it, he inherited a fortune. Meritocracy is a myth, but falling just short of an outright lie, I think.
But back to the other day. It was a holiday reunion of my wife’s family, of parents, aunts and uncles, coming together to eat, drink and be merry, collecting like confetti in the asperous terrain that is Chihuahua.
Some were wealthy, some poor, some in between. Some were beautiful, some ugly. Lucky or unlucky in life and love, fat, skinny, good skin, bad skin, bald, old. All of them drinking white wine in the sun, and enjoying themselves quite thoroughly.
But they shared two key things in common. They were happy, and they were Mexican. I was the odd-one-out. I was the only one with a gnawing existential angst, the feeling that I was an under-performer, a slacker in life’s strange journey.
I was the only one looking out the window to see who arrived in an Audi and who drove up in a Hyundai. And I think it not to be a coincidence that I was the only American.
In 2015 I wrote a piece about the new optimism in Mexico (“Mexico: rising sun of the Americas”) based on the musings of Thomas Friedman. I ruminated about this for some time, and last year I wrote another piggyback opinion piece entitled “Why is Mexico happier than its neighbor?”
Mexico, a poorer country than the U.S. by any economic metric one might like to look at, consistently scores higher on the World Happiness Report index. This curious enigma fascinates me. My thesis was controversial, as is evident by the comment threads.
I argued that upward mobility in Mexico has historically been a dream rather than a right as it is often viewed in the U.S., and that the sunny view of life by Mexicans was due in large measure to a growing middle class, which in turn is due in large measure to a very favorable North American Free Trade Agreement, and globalism.
I think the reason that piece stuck in the craw of so many people was that they expected me to talk about the importance of culture and family and anti-materialism, but ever the contrarian, I focused on socioeconomics.
I’m rethinking this now. No, I’m not abandoning my original thesis entirely, but I think it could use some nuance, especially now that we have a shameless racist charlatan as a president, a man who surely thinks that the sine qua non for happiness is lucre.
Culture is, in fact, important. In “rising sun” I wrote about ni modo (nothing can be done about it) fatalism giving out to si se puede (yes we can) optimism. But the ni-modo mindset does not by definition have to be fatalistic.
It can be liberating. It can mean something like “much of life is beyond my control so I’m going to be happy as happenstance batters me around.” That, I think is the most accurate description of the paradigm of Mexican thought, something Octavio Paz might agree with (or a long-dead French existentialist philosopher).
I recently read two very good biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and it occurred to me that Americans have burdened themselves unnecessarily with an odd mindset that economic progress is success and success is economic progress, full stop.
In the late 1970s, though, the railcar of GDP growth became decoupled from the caboose of income growth – the stock markets will rise and incomes will fall, until the end. The endgame, as it were, of neoliberalism.
Life expectancy is now declining in the U.S., and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death. The conclusion for why this is so is so obvious that it is almost pro forma: Americans value money and upward mobility more than anything, in a system that makes it almost impossible to achieve; in other words, to use the railcar analogy again, the myth of onward-upward has been decoupled from the reality of backward-downward everyday life.
This is a problem. And a problem that Mexicans don’t have.
My wife and I recently sold our grotesquely big house in a sterile gated neighborhood and downsized; we bought small house in a working class neighborhood here in Chihuahua. We’re no longer stressed about making the mortgage payment because there is no mortgage payment. We can travel more, we can go out for dinner more, we can live more.
Absent a biblical miracle, the next four years in the U.S. will be an economic disaster led by a carnival barking nincompoop: corporate profits will soar while personal incomes of average Americans will continue their endemic decline, and there’s not a thing that Trump (or any president) can do about it.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to be unhappy. Happiness can be a choice.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.