“There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one we’ll follow.”
So says the mother in The Tree of Life. For young Jack, she represents grace while his father represents nature. She dances with her children, laughing and singing to them–twirling them around in the sunlight. At one point, a butterfly lands on her hand and rests as she is poised gracefully like a Greek sculpture from some other time.
The father is opposite, for his way is nature. He’s a loving man, but he’s been broken by his own missed opportunities in life. He’s a gifted musician who did not follow his passion. Now he indoctrinates his sons to accept that being a “made man” is the only respectable way to live one’s life. He forces his son, Jack, to control the yard’s grass by continually pulling weeds, and he also forces Jack to plant seeds where the sun doesn’t shine. He’s demanding life where none can thrive.
But I’d be remiss not to emphasize (again) that the father loves his sons. I think it’s one of the small aspects of this film that elevate it from the lesser movie it could have been. He’s not a sociopath; he truly wants what’s best for his family–the trouble is he forces it instead following the way of grace.
When Malick shows the galaxies, dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs), jellyfish, and lava flows, I’m not sure where nature ends and grace begins. The jellyfish is part of nature, but it’s movement is graceful. Humanity is also part of nature, but we can receive grace and bestow it onto others.
I mentioned dinosaurs. There’s one scene toward the beginning when a dinosaur lies in a creek, breathing softly because it is sick or injured or dying of old age. Another predatory dinosaur glides lithely across the water and approaches the wounded beast, ready to attack. This dinosaur puts its foot on the lying dinosaurs face in order to (presumably) kill it. But then, at the last moment, the predator lifts its foot and backs away. Eventually it leaves the dinosaur to die in peace.
Is this an example of the way of grace? Never mind that an apocalyptic event will soon occur, destroying all dinosaurs and forever changing the course of the world. In this one moment between dinosaurs, the way of grace is possibly born.
Malick lifts a large excerpt almost word-for-word from the incomparable Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov. The dialogue is spoken by one of the characters, and it reveals the way of grace through the power of love:
“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”
Love leads to deeper love, and this is what the mother implies–if not outright states. Through loving even the smallest bit of creation, God can cultivate a love for all he has set before us.
The end of The Tree of Life delves into this idea very poignantly, but I have a few more posts to write before I get there.