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Joy on the Journey: Chasing Sehnsucht in Zhao’s Nomadland

“Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?”

In the opening minutes of Chloe Zhao’s film Nomadland, we see these words inked on the arm of an Amazon employee named Angela, who is showing off tattoos to her new friend, Fern. It’s a quick scene that may not seem particularly noteworthy, however, nothing in this movie is extraneous or insignificant. The words of this tattoo present us with both a portent of what’s to come and the central tension of the entire film.

Fern (played by Frances McDormand) has recently endured back-to-back tragedies: the death of her husband and the closing of her longtime job at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. Very soon, she will swap her belongings for a van and adopt the life of a nomad, crisscrossing the western United States in search of work and roadside community. As she meets other nomads, she will face questions that are at once timely and timeless: Where in this rapidly-changing world do I belong? How do I put down roots when all that was familiar has washed away? Can home be found on the edges of the maps?

If you haven’t seen Nomadland yet, I heartily recommend it. The movie was named Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars, where McDormand and Zhao also won awards for acting and directing, respectively. I saw the film months ago, but I’m still thinking about it. Primarily, this is because it reminds me of someone who, on the surface, has little in common with the oddball wanderers of modern America: C. S. Lewis.

Shortly after seeing Nomadland, I started reading Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. In that book, Lewis recounts his decades-long journey to faith in Christ, tracing the impact of a mysterious sensation that he calls “Joy.” Lewis compares Joy to the German word sehnsucht, defining it as an “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” What do the nomads of Zhao’s film have to do with Lewis’s Joy? I believe that Nomadland is packed with echoes of that bewildering, bittersweet desire. If we listen closely to those echoes, we can learn some profound things about both the nature of Joy and humanity’s search for that elusive destination: home.

Shaken Loose

According to C. S. Lewis, Joy is dynamic. It’s an elusive desire which appears unexpectedly and vanishes far more quickly than we want it to. While it may be sparked by familiar things—an illustration in a book, the smell of morning mist, or a glimpse of distant hills—it always surprises and unsettles us, compelling us to find it again. This is because of its fleeting nature and its unique intensity. Joy carries with it a sense of what Lewis calls “incalculable importance,” a transcendent spark that feels otherworldly and makes all other pursuits seem “insignificant in comparison.” Unlike other desires, we can’t manufacture or control it. As Lewis says, Joy “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Joy is on the move, and it gets us moving, too. Once we’ve encountered it, we are never quite the same.

The characters in Nomadland (many of them played by real-life nomads) have varied reasons for leaving society behind. Like Fern, some are bereaved and unemployed. Others are battling depression, chronic illness, or symptoms of PTSD. Still others are pursuing adventure and a deeper, richer way of life. Despite their differences, all of them have been shaken loose from what was familiar, launched into uncharted territory by experiences that changed them, rendering them unable or unwilling to thrive in traditional settings. Chloe Zhao highlights their uniqueness with close-up camera shots that dwell on weathered skin, lines etched in faces, and the glow of restless eyes. She invites us to empathize with these characters by lingering on numerous scenes of everyday life, work, and play. These mundane moments are punctuated here and there with scenes of astonishing beauty: buffalo rustling through a sea of tall grass, hundreds of birds wheeling in the air beside a cave wall, a sunset blazing over the Badlands, and a desert sky splashed with starlight. Like our own stories, the lives of Zhao’s characters are multifaceted—slow and meandering and chock-full of ordinariness, yet also riven with glory.

Like Fern and her companions, those of us who have experienced what Lewis calls “the stab of Joy” and committed ourselves to pursuing its source are square pegs in round holes—what the Bible calls “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Having tasted a desire that no earthly comfort can assuage, we are compelled into motion. Our starting points may vary, but our quest is the same. We are drawn inexorably onward, lured by a high and holy wind that fills us with longing for something else, something more, and something beyond. We have no hope of controlling that wind, but if we allow it to carry us, we may find ourselves swept to places and people we never expected to encounter. Like Fern, we may find ourselves shedding old goals, old entanglements, and old coping mechanisms in our efforts to track down that peculiar spark, yet also discovering new joys along the way. We may traverse the highways and byways of the world, but we are no longer “of the world” (John 17:6). We have been displaced.

On the Outside Looking In

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes Joy as an ache—a desire that, while pleasurable, is tinged with bitterness. This melancholy strain is not only a consequence of Joy’s absence, but is also an intrinsic part of Joy itself. Reflecting on his own experience of sehnsucht, Lewis identifies the feeling as something “almost like heartbreak.” Elsewhere, he calls it “a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss.” Joy as Lewis defines it is interwoven with grief.

While Chloe Zhao’s film explores the appeals of life on the road, it refuses to romanticize the experiences of its subjects. Fern and her friends are vulnerable to many hardships, from difficulties finding stable work to the vicissitudes of the natural environment. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards underscores these struggles with camera shots that expose the vast, silent barrenness of the Badlands and the Arizona Desert. In such places, a broken van becomes a terrifying prospect. Fern’s relationships are laced with the sorrow of inevitable goodbyes. During one raw scene, her sister tells her, “I would have loved having you around all these years. You left a big hole by leaving.” Throughout the film, we see Fern repeatedly gravitating toward the firm beams and warm embers of family. Yet again and again, that old itch that Joni Mitchell dubbed “the urge for going” sends her retreating back into the wilderness. Frances McDormand’s performance here is masterful, betraying the depths of Fern’s yearning and grief in quiet, subtle expressions and the fires of a relentlessly searching gaze.

The bitter aftertaste of Joy reminds us that despite its glories, our road is a hard one, and we are further away from the source of our longing than we had imagined. Jeshua Hayden

In the pages of Scripture, we learn that suffering is part and parcel of our journey toward Joy. 1 Chronicles 29:15 connects life as a sojourner with the ache of continual transience: “Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.” In his letter to the Jewish exiles, the Apostle Peter describes the Christian sojourn as a battleground, which is fraught with temptation and peril: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Like the characters of Zhao’s film, those of us who chase Joy into the wild must eventually confront the fact that our best efforts to achieve happiness are imperfect. Beauty crumbles away, the fires of longing fade with time, and our thirst for lasting fulfillment collides with the reality that this world isn’t as it should be. The bitter aftertaste of Joy reminds us that despite its glories, our road is a hard one, and we are further away from the source of our longing than we had imagined. Like Fern, who thumps against the glowing windows of home with the persistence of a determined moth, we find ourselves on the outside looking in.

Called Home

Musing on the strange character of Joy, C. S. Lewis describes the desire as something akin to memory: “All Joy reminds.” On the final page of his autobiography, he elaborates this idea by comparing Joy to a signpost. Unlike other desires, Joy doesn’t merely lead us to the physical object or experience that inspired it. Instead, it points beyond itself to something that is farther off and more difficult to name. What does Joy remind us of, and where is it pointing us? Lewis answers these questions in his book Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

There is a reason why our encounters with sehnsucht feel otherworldly. That ache is a memory of another time and place—an echo of an Eden that was lost when humanity disavowed its creator and a seismic evil sundered the cosmos, fracturing everything in its wake. It is also a signpost pointing us to a time and place yet to come—to an Eden regained, healed of all the sin and sickness and sorrow that ravaged it. The Joy that Lewis writes about is a both a remnant of paradise lost and an invitation from the God who is making all things new again. In the last analysis, it’s a call to come home.

Near the beginning of Nomadland, a girl asks Fern if she is homeless. “No, I’m not homeless,” Fern replies. “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” Throughout the film, as we watch Fern roam from place to place, we’re invited to ask ourselves that very question. Is home a physical place, or is it something that we take with us? Can those without roots ever truly be at home in this world? Zhao’s film challenges us to linger in spaces of tension, inviting us into the physical and existential wilderness that Fern and her friends must navigate. We’re encouraged to walk a mile in their shoes—to see ourselves as fellow sojourners, set adrift between the past we’ve left behind and the future we’re longing to participate in. As we read in Hebrews 13:14, those of us who await God’s new creation “do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Like Fern, we’re still on the road.

Yet for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is profound consolation to be glimpsed in Nomadland, tattooed on an Amazon worker’s arm. In the Apostle John’s depiction of the New Jerusalem, we witness the ultimate balm for our homesickness: our savior, Jesus, dwelling among the people he has redeemed by his blood. He, more than any physical space, is our truest homethe source of our Joy and the satisfaction of our longings. What comfort does this vision offer us in our wilderness wanderings today? Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christians are told that the same savior who will one day welcome us home now lives within each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Faced with the questions posed by Angela’s tattoo, we can honestly answer, “Yes and amen.” Yes, home is just a word; more specifically, it is a name. And yes, it is also something we carry within us—a fellow traveler, who has promised to be with us “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Reflecting on Nomadland and its resonances with Lewis’s Joy, we might find ourselves agreeing with the words of George MacDonald: “Yea, no home at last will do, but the home of God’s heart.”


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