A number of years ago, I stopped watching the evening news. It was all negative, and I felt that it was beginning to affect the way I saw the world. Our Sages tell us to be happy, to be content with what we have, and to greet everyone with a smile. The evening news promoted the opposite by reporting and depicting narratives of murder, theft of all kinds, and stories of abuse of people and abuse of the environment. When I saw News of the World, it reminded me that all the news does not have to focus on the negative, on what is wrong with the world, but it is possible to find good if you seek it out.
The film begins five years after the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd fought in the war and, as a result, lost the printing business he owned prior to it. Now he travels from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller passing along news of presidents and royalty and adventures all across the world. As a “news anchor” in the 1870s, he charges a dime for people to come and hear him reading newspapers that provide a picture of what is happening outside of the mundane world of the farmer and laborer living in the rural American South.
As he travels across Texas, he encounters Johanna, a lone ten-year old taken in by the Kiowa Indians six years earlier when her parents were killed by them. The Kiowa raised her as one of their own, but she is now abandoned. With no one to come to her aid, Kidd realizes that he must return her to her biological aunt and uncle, with whom she has nothing in common except a blood relationship.
When Kidd tries to get the authorities to accept responsibility for transporting Johanna to her surviving relatives, he can find no one available and willing to make the trip of several hundred miles. Reluctantly, he agrees to deliver her to where the law says she belongs.
It is a journey fraught with peril, for they must traverse lawless areas of land where they face physical danger. Compounding the problem, they can barely communicate with one another, for Johanna speaks only the Kiowa language and bits of German she spoke as a young child.
On one of his small-town stops where he presents his news of the world, he meets a radical band of militia who want Kidd to read a newspaper they have prepared with stories about “cleansing” the land from “outsiders.” The stories reflect a split among local citizens about the South’s post-war future, with some wanting to resurrect slavery.
Instead, Kidd robustly reads from a different paper about a group of coal miners who challenge a cruel man who refuses to abide by safety standards that place his miners in jeopardy. The narrative, although tense and worrisome to the listeners at the beginning, ends happily; and Kidd feels he has given his audience a reason to smile and be optimistic about the future. The message he leaves them is not to give up in the face of adversity; rather approach challenges with optimism. Be happy and smile, no matter how dismal the reality.
Jewish tradition stresses the need to acquire happiness. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a rabbinic ethicist, says that to acquire happiness, one has to appreciate the small gifts of life that are really big gifts. He writes about his own student years in a yeshiva in Poland: “ Number one – Learn to be happy that you have a roof over your head. Then learn what it means to have running water in your house. When I was in Europe, we didn’t have any running water in the houses. And when you wanted to take a bath, there was no bathroom. So either you went to a public bathhouse, or they brought in a tin tub. Nobody had a bathroom. When you went to the toilet in the middle of the night in the wintertime, in the middle of the night, you had to put on your boots. I stamped through the snow at nighttime. But if you have a bathroom, you’re a millionaire already. You have everything.”
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg prescribes one way to find happiness: “Happiness occurs when we make the decision to focus on the blessings in our lives, no matter how challenging or formidable the struggles we face simultaneously. If our happiness results from the blessings we already have, we can always find happiness because we always have at least something.”
Jefferson Kyle Kidd is able to find happiness after seeing comrades die in war, after his wife dies of cholera, and after losing his livelihood. Why? Because he decides to be positive about life and to do whatever he can to bring happiness to people. He is content with little, and finds peace and contentment by giving to others.