Grace in nature
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the new Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life. Malick’s technique, in part, I would argue is for the movie to be experienced as life is, rather than told as stories are, which keeps viewers confused and questioning throughout. He uses this approach as a way of grappling existentially with one of life’s biggest questions: why do the righteous and innocent suffer? Malick sets up this notion that the good still do suffer as a nuanced but gripping tension throughout the film using references to the Book of Job as well as the character of Mrs. O'Brien. In the opening scenes, Mrs. O’Brien’s voice eases delicately over images of her learning of her son’s death, reflecting:
“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow… Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries… Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things… The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
This tone-setting passage enables the stories of The Tree of Life to unfold, and Malick starts at the beginning (literally) as images representing the origins of the universe and the seeds of life on earth give way to scenes with dinosaurs in ancient forests and eventually find their way back to the life of the O’Brien family.
Ironically, during the lengthy and somewhat indulgent montage of the beginning of time, two couples watching the movie behind me grew restless. Nature was certainly trumping grace at that moment for them. They presumably had come to see a Brad Pitt and Sean Penn movie and it did not seem to be what they were getting. Their whispers grew slowly into more bold and loud frustration as the sci-fi, national geographic-like special effects were being repeated frame by fame, over and over again on the screen. Eventually they got up and walked out of the theater.
By the end of the film, it became clear to me that Malick was trying to demonstrate the coexistence of grace and nature. He boldly claims that no person or place is immune to change (or evolution) and furthermore that no person or place can ever really see or understand the end of time or perhaps more importantly the end of their own story. With this, grace becomes synonymous to the awareness and the acceptance of the notion that we are all interconnected, that we exist in relationship to both the past and the future, and that nature is in and around all of us.
It was all too ironic that the couples who walked out of the film missed this message. To them, it appears, the misalignment of their expectations with their initial experience was intolerable. Rather then guiding themselves through the difficulties of this challenge, they turned their backs on the experience entirely and lost out on some of the most interesting lessons. Herein lies my main point. In life, and particularly in this social justice work that we do, it is often hard to accept that there are multiple ways to talk about issues, that there is a history that came before all of us, and that there is a future that none of us can see. However, it is in our ability to simultaneously acknowledge nature and embody grace that we find the ability to move through experiences openly in hopes that one day we will understand more fully the complex nuances of our experiences and of life in general.
In closing, I’ll leave you to consider the core question that I keep coming back to since seeing this film, which is: how do my expectations color my experiences and what role does grace (or some quality like it) play in helping me live through the inevitable and challenging times of misalignment?
Thanks, again, for reading,