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American Kindness

We are, at our core, kind. American kindness, perhaps more so than innovation, may be our most valuable trait.

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Last week, I wrote about the pandemic of mistrust that continues to infect and afflict us across the world. The post left me feeling a little down, a little despondent about our future. And then suddenly, my faith in humanity was restored by a movie that, on its surface at least, promised no such relief. My wife and I sat down to watch Nomadland this weekend. Based on the eponymous 2017 book, the film depicts a year in the life of Fern, played marvelously by Frances McDormand, who has left the shuttered, real-life town of Empire, Nevada for a “houseless” life traveling across America in her van named Vanguard. In the movie, we meet an array of characters played by the real-life subjects chronicled in the book. Director Chloe Zhao’s signature use of the actual people playing fictionalized versions of themselves creates an aura of authenticity and rawness. Coupled with exquisite cinematography that captures the beauty and vastness of the American landscape, the movie scores on all fronts, rightly earning its frontrunner status for best movie of 2020.

At first, I was struck by the harsh realities of an economy recovering from the 2008 recession. A reality that unfortunately persists for many. But as the movie unfolded, something much more powerful was revealed. There is an inescapable undercurrent of kindness that flows through the film—a tenderness in how the self-described “nomads” care for each other. There is a sense of safety in watching the movie derived from a feeling that this is what people, unencumbered by the trappings of the modern world, are like. We are, at our core, kind. This is the gift of the movie, the gift of the nomadic lifestyle. This is the power and beauty of art. Who would have thought that the story of a system that has lost its ability to properly care for the downtrodden could serve as a reminder of the raw, unadulterated kindness that flows through this country? American kindness, perhaps more so than innovation, may be our most valuable trait. Who would have thought?

I’m not sure this is right. But I hope that I’m on to something. More than anything else, the film had me reflect on my own value around kindness. How easy it is for me, if I’m not careful, to be unkind. I went to bed that night after watching the movie, profoundly grateful for Jessica Bruder, the journalist and author of the book on which the movie was based, who embedded herself for months in this community in an effort to tell an untold (and needed to be told) story. To Zhao, for her courage and immense moviemaking talents. To McDormand, for her brutally honest portrayal of Fern. But most importantly, to Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells – the real life heroes of the story – for teaching me what genuine kindness looks like. I go forth this week with a renewed commitment to take these teachings and embody them as best as I can.

With kindness,

Darren

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