The Tree of Life and small things

The audience erupted into nervous laughter as the film ended. They laughed to dissipate heaviness in the air: to release emotions that are difficult to identify, or painful.

After watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the world seemed quieter, less urgent. No need to check my phone as I walked home. I had no desire to listen to headphones. I did not care that I had left my $2 bottle of Evian in the movie theater. Small things, compared to the pulse of life – we, above all, are small things.

The film lays out a dichotomy between Nature and Grace – between the raw, the wild, the savage, and the tamed, the civilized, the human. And the latter is in the hands of God.

But the God of this film is, like in all Judeo-Christian tales, an angry, unjust, and mysterious God.

“If you love, you will be happy,” whispers the matriarch of the movie, a wispy-haired woman who is devoted to her children and cherishes her husband, even when he lets the family down.

Although she loves desperately, she loses a dear one. God takes without warning, for no reason.

We are small things. Nature is immense. It dwarfs us. Time comes in swooping waves of energy, bringing the debris of the past onto the beach of the present; we sunbathe in our future and then wash it off because the stench, sweaty and visceral, reminds us, always, of our past: raw, wild, savage.

The family is the unit of life. And though we may be small, the family is very big. It is everything: all we have to guide us into the world. We, being small, grasp onto our kin. They are the only things constant in the ever-swelling ebbs and flows of time.

“It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy.” -Jewish proverb

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