I have lived long enough in the United States to know for a fact that Americanness is a many-faceted thing. Along with inspiring facets, disturbing ones are plentiful in both American history and present-day news cycles and they can only inform the way I look at this country. But there is more to my vantage point.
Two adjectives have gradually made their way into my life through living here, interacting with Americans and, quite importantly, becoming a mother and raising a child in this country. “Silly” is one of them. As I mentioned in a recent post, many Americans have a taste for silliness and an appreciation for the good it can bring.
Jim Henson’s popular Muppet Show, full of goofy characters, fuzzy monsters, and nonsensical situations, is a case in point. We started watching it with Minette two years ago and have enjoyed it ever since. It doesn’t matter that the show was produced more than four decades ago and features many then celebrities we had never heard about (along with ever bright stars). Its humor feels as fresh and engaging as it did in the 1970s.
It took me a while to understand and appreciate that “silly is good.” — I am quoting a little book by Jim Henson that Appa and Minette like to read together. One of the reasons for my slow grasping is probably that it is not possible to translate the word into French with its positive connotation. In my original culture, being funny almost always seems to imply you are somehow the smarter one. No wonder the Marx Brothers, Doctor Seuss, or the Muppet Show were not born in France…
The other attribute I have come to value more and more is “kind.” Kindness is an affirmed life goal for many Americans. I have experienced this in my relationships with friends and neighbors, in how Minette is taught at school, and in how I see most strangers interact. In the words of the father of a classmate of Minette’s: “The world does not need more clever people, but it does need more kind people.” This coming from the dad of two very bright little boys…
I am not sure to what extent the American aspiration to kindness is related to this country being more religious than European countries. I would venture that religion is not at the heart of this matter. For one thing, the data available suggests Americans are much less religious overall than they were one or two generations ago, and kindness is still very much on their mind, as far as I can see.
French people can be kind, of course, but kindness, as opposed to mere respect, tolerance, or solidarity, is not generally and collectively recognized as a cardinal virtue. Here again language says a lot. “Kind,” a short, ancient, simple word, can only be used positively. The French equivalent, “gentil,” on the other hand, is often used with some degree of irony. If you tell someone other than a child that “Pierre est gentil” it usually implies that Pierre is not very smart… To me “kind” brings light and meaningfulness, while “gentil” sounds limited.
Here I am, learning through and with my American child, inspired by her and striving to inspire her back. I now know that both “silly” and “kind” belong in this journey.