The Tree of Life and The Way of Grace

Abstract. Terrence Malick’s movie, The Tree of Life, suggests a stark contrast between the way of nature and the way of grace. At first, this contrast - but especially its starkness - seems to set the context for a choice that no individual person ever escapes: the choice of whether to live in accord with the way of nature or to live by the way of grace. However, the manner in which the ways of nature and grace are explained in a voiceover very early in the movie, in conjunction with the manner in which the pervasive opportunity for grace is eventually brought to the fore within the movie, actually results in a more elegant and more stark contrast, one which is less immediately apparent than the contrast between the ways of nature and grace, but one which goes much farther in capturing the very crux of being human: The choice which no individual person escapes is whether or not to live by the way of grace, with charity and imbued with the love which goes beyond mere preference. This more exhaustive contrast corrects the common notion that nature and grace are incompatible and sets focus upon the discernment necessary to make grace more manifest within life and nature.

(See also this previous essay.)

I. When did you first touch my heart?

A voiceover which occurs very early during Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life explains that the way of nature is to seek its own pleasure and to have its own way. The way of grace, on the other hand, is put forth more apophatically: It is not the way of grace to seek its own pleasure; grace does not expect or demand its own way,1 and the way of grace does not - and does not seek to - lord over anything. From this it is supposed to be apparent that a person who lives by the way of nature lives seeking his or her own pleasure and trying to have his or her own way. In contradistinction, people of grace are not devoted to the pursuit of their own pleasure; they do not demand their own way, and they do not wish to dominate.

This explanation comes in the voice of Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain), and it occurs so early in the movie that there can yet be no indication whether this expression is presented as a supposed fact of reality or simply as the gist of a personal understanding arrived at by Mrs. O’Brien.

One problem with this depiction, a problem which suggests that this voiceover explanation is but a personal understanding and a limited expression rather than a fact about reality is that the portrayal of the way of nature is exceedingly simplistic. That portrayal makes it quite an easy matter for virtually all persons to insist - with justification - that they most certainly do not live in accord with what appears to be the thorough self-serving identified as characteristic of the way of nature.

Whether not failing to be thoroughly self-serving is sufficient to claim to be living by grace is another matter altogether, but the fact that grace and its way seem to be best characterized by extensively apophatic statements contributes to the ease with which any person could claim to live in the way of grace simply by virtue of not being primarily devoted to his or her own pleasure or to having his or her own way.

It is an easy matter to think that the character of Mr. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt) is to be understood as nothing more than an exemplification of the way of nature while Mrs. O’Brien exemplifies the way of grace. After all, Mr. O’Brien himself makes it quite clear that he has chosen to live according to the way of nature, where the way of nature is more properly identified as the way of the world, where that world is primarily the human social order which makes itself enticing primarily by the rewards it offers.2 It is the pleasure and benefits to be had from those rewards which Mr. O’Brien seeks.

Furthermore, Mr. O’Brien himself associates his wife – and very much less so himself - with goodness (a condition of which grace is supposed to be at least constituent), and he also states outright that such goodness cannot succeed out in the world. Having comparatively little contact with the way of the world, his wife comes across as ethereal, so much so that there is even a scene where she floats almost as if an angel. Rather than being merely a matter of surrealistic artistry, this scene serves to emphasize that much of what is conveyed in the movie about the O’Briens are the remembrances, the emotions, and even remembered emotions of the eldest son, Jack (with Hunter McCracken playing the younger Jack and Sean Penn playing the adult Jack).

Coming as it largely does from a child’s mind, this perspective provides reason to consider it likely that the association of Mr. O’Brien with the way of nature and Mrs. O’Brien with the way of grace is just too facile, too superficial, and this superficiality relates directly to the problem found in the rather common notion that the way of nature and the way of grace are incompatible as well as veritable contraries.

Mr. O’Brien tries to prepare his sons for the way of the world: He teaches them about fighting; he demands deference; he even warns them that being good like their mother will do nothing other than assure failure in the world. These lessons in no way recommend even consideration of the way of grace - supposedly Mrs. O’Brien’s way – as an alternative possibility to the social Darwinism which fits so well with the way of nature. But, it is also quite clear that Mr. O’Brien in no way regards the lessons he imparts to his sons as serving his own interests.

It is true that he might be thought of as fulfilling a socially expected obligation to prepare his sons for the world when he teaches them to be at least somewhat dismissive of the way of grace in order to succeed in the world. It is also true that Mr. O’Brien might be concerned about being looked upon with social disapproval if he does not do his part to orient his sons for the way of the world. It might even be claimed that Mr. O’Brien is ultimately sparing himself from the displeasure he would feel were his sons unprepared to succeed in the world. Even so, he could honestly aver that the lessons he seeks to impart are a matter of pure selflessness in that the lessons are entirely for the welfare of his sons; neither the lessons nor the success Mr. O’Brien desires for his sons are for his benefit.

In this way, Mr. O’Brien could rightly insist that he does not live in accord with the way of nature, although he would admit that his life is also not the unmitigated way of grace.

In like fashion, it might be said that, despite a love for her children that is seemingly more unconditional or less overtly demanding than that which her husband exhibits towards their sons, Mrs. O’Brien does not actually live by the way of grace, because she reaps pleasure by loving and also because she might hope for or receive from her children a love requited in appropriate fashion.

All this just serves to reiterate how very simplistic, incomplete, how very off the mark are the impressions most likely to be formed initially from the depictions of the way of nature and the way of grace with which the movie begins (of course, it is worth keeping in mind that these depictions may themselves be remembrances of Jack’s childhood understandings).

Although it is the apophatic manner of expression which most strikingly depicts the way of grace, the film also identifies the way of grace as the way for happiness. In other words, it is simply an error to think that there is no pleasure to be had with the way of grace; it is an error to think that the way of grace entails denying the self of all pleasure or satisfaction; extreme asceticism is not the way of grace.

Furthermore, while the way of grace is the way to happiness, the way of grace is not protected from displeasure or even misery. In fact, it is an error even to think that the way of grace will surely encounter less misery than will be had with the way of nature, and this is a significant part of why love needs to be – and why the way of grace is – patient.3 However, the way of grace is not to be patient for the sake of happiness or to endure and abide with the expectation of happiness as if happiness were a reward. Rather, the aim of the way of grace is simply the love which goes beyond personal preference,4 and this is no remote, wholly transcendent sort of love; this is a love to be made manifest and recognizable in this world.

In no way does Mr. O’Brien seem to be a man who does not love. His love may not so clearly be the grace which goes beyond preferential love, yet his sons seem to be very much aware that he does love them. But, at least for Jack, the eldest son, there is something about his father’s love that seems not quite right. It is not as if Jack himself can clearly identify or precisely express what is the problem that he experiences in his relations with his father; Jack is, after all, far too young through most of the movie to be able to do so. In Jack’s case, even resorting to a “You don’t love me” is to be seen as more of an accusation of some sort than as an expression of doubt or denial that his father loves him. And, it is not as if it is unheard of for a child to jab at a parent with the claim that the parent does not love the child.

From the child’s perspective and based on the child’s limited experience, to say that a parent does not love the child is the most horrific charge that can ever be leveled at a parent, because the one thing of which a child is most certain is that for parents to be good people they must love their children.

The closest that young Jack comes to presenting a case against his father is when he goes through a familiar sort of litany, the purpose of which is to present his father as a hypocrite: Mr. O’Brien will not let his sons put their elbows on the dinner table, but Mr. O’Brien puts his elbows on the table. We also know that Mr. O’Brien made a big show of making Jack close a screen door properly fifty times after Jack had let the door slam, and we can be fairly certain that Mr. O’Brien had himself slammed a door – or let a door slam – on occasion without making himself go back and shut it properly.

Jack also grumbles about his father not caring about other people, but none of this amounts to a case – even in Jack’s mind - for the idea that his father does not love him or his brothers. In addition, none of this amounts to an explanation for Jack not loving his father, and that is because Jack does in fact love his father. This is made utterly and unmistakably apparent in the scene where Mr. O’Brien is playing a church organ while Jack stands on the side of the organ watching his father in admiration and with so much adoration that Jack absolutely has to go sit on the organ bench beside his father right in the middle of the piece he is playing. Jack knows that, because of his father’s love, he is welcome – and privileged - to sit with his father.

Still, there is something that is not quite right with - or something that seems to be missing from - his father’s love.

II. Always were you calling me

One evening, Mr. O’Brien is relaxing in a chair, reading the newspaper, when Jack walks into the room, notices his father, and halts as if his mind has now switched from thinking about where he was going to calculating how best to escape from that room, from his father. Before Jack can even begin to leave the room, Mr. O’Brien – with a dispassion that is neither an order nor even a request made with the distractedness which comes of having one’s attention focused elsewhere – lets Jack know that he wants Jack to reach his lighter for him. Jack walks over to the side table next to the chair where his father is sitting and moves the lighter closer to his father. The lighter clearly was already easily within Mr. O’Brien’s reach when he asked Jack to get it for him, and one cannot help but wonder why he wanted his son’s unneeded effort.

Jack then begins to leave, and his father asks him whether he had forgotten something. Jack dutifully gives his father a goodnight hug and walks away. But, before Jack can make it out of the room, Mr. O’Brien asks him whether he loves his father. Jack stops, and does not so much confess his love as accede with uneasiness to the expectation (or is it more like a demand?) that he love his father.

Of course, love is not something that comes to be by being demanded, or simply because it is expected, or upon request. From Jack’s perspective at the time, this entire scene with his father in the living room just reinforces his experience of his father as domineering – something which Jack’s mother is not. Can it be that his mother’s way somehow imparts to Jack a sense that love neither demands its own way nor lords over that which is claimed to be loved? Can it be that Jack has some sense that his father’s love is diseased by a drive to control?


But, this is the impression of Mr. O’Brien garnered from the perspective of a boy of middle school age, and, although love cannot be enforced, discipline can be, and Mr. O’Brien definitely does enforce discipline. However, discipline is not necessarily enforced in order to domineer. A parent can enforce discipline without a desire to control and, instead, only with the desire and hope to eventually foster in the child an appreciation for the value of developing self-discipline and self-control.

Even so, might not the sense which Jack seems to have that there is something not quite right or something incomplete about his father’s love derive from experiences such as that in the living room where love is set as if it is subject to being demanded and enforced?


Yet, such a conflict between love and demand could more directly result from the child having but a very scant understanding of the father’s heart, mind, and situational intent, an understanding which may very well be more scant than is the child’s sense of what love is, or what it is supposed to be like. In that case, it could be asserted that it was a mistake on the part of Mr. O’Brien not to anticipate or consider the possibility that the child might get misled or confused by so close an association of love and demand.

However, even if it is a mistake, is it actually ultimately avoidable? Even if Mr. O’Brien were cognizant of the possibility that such a confusion might arise, might he not have other ultimately more pressing reasons for requesting or demanding expressions of love which happen not to be forthcoming on their own in that place and at that time?

Despite any first impressions that might be had to the contrary, Mr. O’Brien is not a prototypical 1950s American father even if he does seem to exhibit many characteristics of such a supposed archetype. His passion for music and the appreciation for beauty which he tries to impart to his sons does not fit that oft derided archetype. The fact that he has twenty-seven patents further recommends that consideration of Mr. O’Brien not be in terms of archetypical conformity. Rather, he is to be considered in terms of his notable exceptions to any such generalization. (Besides, it is never the way of grace to simply treat any individual as a type.)

Accordingly, it might well be that Mr. O’Brien intends for his sons to come to realize that the disimpassioned and toughened demeanor generally regarded as indicative of manliness need not - and should not - serve to suppress expressions of love. With what goes on between Jack and himself that evening in the living room, it might even be that Mr. O’Brien recognizes that Jack, in particular, has a reticence for expressing love. In that case it could well be that the best course of action, with Jack’s benefit in mind, would be for Mr. O’Brien to indicate frequently to Jack that the expression of love is generally to be regarded as preferable to a reticence to express love.

Emilio Segrè, a Nobel laureate in physics, once said, “When the mind is not prepared, the eye does not recognize.”5 When a parent enforces discipline in the hope that the child will eventually appreciate the value and importance of developing self-discipline and self-control, the parent is actually preparing the child’s mind to be able eventually to recognize that it can discipline itself.

Likewise, when Mr. O’Brien presses for Jack to indicate affection and express love, Mr. O’Brien can be trying to prepare Jack’s mind to eventually be able to recognize that the expression of love is not only acceptable but also something important and good.

Furthermore, by pressing Jack to express love and affection at times when Jack clearly has no concurrent intense feeling of affection, Mr. O’Brien can be preparing Jack’s mind to realize that love is something other than a particular sort of intense feeling and also that love is more about that which one loves than it is about one’s own feeling and one’s own self. After all, love (if love it is) abides even when the intensity of feeling wanes, and the intensity of feelings often wanes. In this way, Mr. O’Brien can be preparing Jack’s mind to recognize that love always extends beyond feeling as well as beyond mere preference (including the inclination of the moment).

In effect, then, what Mr. O’Brien can be doing on occasions like the one that evening in the living room is preparing Jack’s mind for the way of grace.

Mr. O’Brien can be doing this, but is he?

Even if Mr. O’Brien acts as he does in order to prepare Jack’s mind for the way of grace, how is it possible that Jack can ever understand that this is his father’s intent? After all, from Jack’s perspective at this point so early in his life, Mr. O’Brien seems to have been most devoted to preparing Jack for recognizing the way of the world. This preparation has been for recognizing that the way of the world supersedes the way of grace, the way of love. From what Jack can tell (based upon what he has been taught about the way of the world), the way of the world, at most, only tolerates the way of grace.

At no time has Mr. O’Brien denied that love never wanes even if the loving feeling does, and at no time has Mr. O’Brien denied that he loves (at least his family); so, Mr. O’Brien basically does not deny the reality of the way of grace. Maybe all he denies is that it is proper to assign primacy to the way of grace.

There are two ways to understand his father which are immediately available to Jack. First, the way of grace – wherein love is enduring and persists despite moment to moment exigencies - is fine so long as it is restricted to one’s own family. Second, when his father demands expressions of love that evening in the living room, he intends to be domineering simply as a reminder that, in the hierarchical nature of family, primacy rests with the father.

This may very well be what Mr. O’Brien is doing; it may very well be that Mr. O’Brien is not trying to prepare Jack’s mind to recognize the way of grace as extending even beyond preference for - or allegiance or devotion to - one’s own family.

But, the glory of grace - the glory of the love which goes beyond preference - is that this love can be made manifest despite the many ways in which attention can be diverted from its importance. The glory of this love is in the frequently surprising ease with which this love can be made manifest despite the many ways and reasons available for restricting its scope to exclude any sort of circumstance at any particular time.

In one sense, love is independent of, does not depend for its existence on, does not come into and go out of existence in reaction to the moment to moment exigencies of the world. In another sense, love depends on those very same exigencies. Those exigencies set the context, the conditions not just in which but also for which love is to be expressed and made ever more particularly manifest. The glory of grace is in the innumerable opportunities which this love (in the person of the one who loves) finds – and, indeed, is intent on providing – for creating the veritably countless, singular ways in which to make yet more manifest the love which goes beyond preference.

In The Tree of Life there is a voiceover expressing a recognition that “Always were you calling me.” Although there is ambiguity regarding just who the “you” is, what is far more clearly the case is that the calling is only – and can only be – by means of grace. But, the means of that love are necessarily of great subtlety, because love in itself invariantly prefers to serve up no demands and only attains its greatest fullness when its very being (its reality) is its whole appeal. Having no desire to lord over anyone, what makes it appealing is not that it imparts the sense of being loved; rather, the appeal of love lies in its invitation to the individual to create new manifestations, new occasions of love where and as only that individual can.

III. The mustard seed

The manner in which the way of the world seems to limit the scope available to the way of grace does not restrict the glory of the way of grace so long as love is localized in any individual. Just as mere preference can serve as a seed for the love which extends beyond preference, the glory of grace rests in the opportunity which this grace itself provides to make love more widely manifest despite the ubiquitous reasons for regarding love as a convenience at best.

In the case of Mr. O’Brien and Jack, it is because of the abiding opportunity which both is and is afforded by the glory of grace that it does not ultimately matter whether Mr. O’Brien was preparing Jack to recognize the way of grace as restricted for the sake of practicality or whether he was preparing Jack to recognize grace as subject to no such limitation. It does not ultimately matter because, the love which Mr. O’Brien exhibits for his sons is itself sufficient to impart the sense that love does not wane with feelings and according to the particulars of circumstance.

Love breaks forth from the seed which is preference when, for instance, preoccupation with the feelings one has for an other gives way to an interest dedicated to the sake of that particular other. This dedication does not waver as feelings vacillate; in effect, the love which came from preference frees itself from the restriction of preference, because that love is not restricted to those feelings which came together as preference.

In like fashion, grace can break forth from the seed which is the love for a particular other when it is realized that love is not defined in terms of restrictions owing to the very fact that love knows no restrictions. The manner in which love is expressed can be constrained (in accord with contexts, for example) without restricting or setting limits to love itself (and its persistent quest for opportunities and ways in which to make itself ever more manifest in the world). Indeed, even if the manner of its expression is rightly constrained (for the sake of others, for instance), it is with the recognition of the fact that the authenticity of love is found in its refusal to be restricted that grace comes forth.

Accordingly, it does not matter whether Mr. O’Brien had it in his mind to prepare Jack for the way of grace. The sense of love imparted to Jack by Mr. O’Brien, the mere sense that love is not restricted to moments of approval and withdrawn at moments of disapproval, can well serve as a seed from which grace might break forth in and from Jack. Grace will break forth if and when Jack ever recognizes that the scope for love is restricted (such as to his own family) only by human contrivance and not because of the nature of love.

Once Jack comes to this realization and allows himself a more extensive and expansive sort of love, he may feel acutely that this same realization had always been available to him, had always been calling to him. But, the glory of grace is in the opportunities it affords; any wallowing in grief over the opportunities Jack missed is to give way to his making grace manifest as, where, and when only he can.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed”.6 Since that kingdom is the kingdom of God and since God is most closely identified with love, it is love that is like the mustard seed “which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”7.

The fact that the mustard seed is not actually “the smallest of all seeds” and the fact that the mustard is much more often a weed rather than a tree have caused some occasional consternation.8 But, the point of the parable remains valid.

Despite being so seemingly insubstantial relative to the world, love – particularly that love localized in any individual - is itself a seed which can produce much that cannot be produced by the way of the world. In addition, from the perspective of the way of the world, what love can produce contributes little if anything to the interests that drive the activities of the world. So, from the perspective of the way of the world, what it is that this love produces – primarily more of itself in a variegation of guises - can seem as very much unwanted as is a weed.

Furthermore, because of the very nature of this love, there is always the chance that it will spread and become, from the perspective of the interests that drive the way of the world, more than just an occasionally inconvenient weed. In fact, the veritable ineradicableness of this love in conjunction with its natural tendency to spread itself, makes this love a threat to the way of the world inasmuch as this love draws people to itself and away from the interests which serve to drive the way of the world. In effect, as this love spreads itself, it weakens the grip that the way of the world has over individuals.

But, love does not spread in order to devastate either the way of the world or those who live in manners which maintain the way of the world. Rather, love only spreads by the very appeal of its way, and love recognizes in the way of the world not an enemy (although there are enemies to the way of love within the world) but, instead, opportunities for new expressions of itself which make love still more appealing by making it ever newer.

Despite itself, the way of the world is rife with opportunities for new manifestations of grace. It is because of these opportunities that the choice is not actually between the way of the world and the way of grace; the choice is the way of grace or not.

In The Tree of Life, there is the impression that Jack eventually comes to be aware of the glory of grace. How he becomes aware of it is not made obvious. Why would it be? Words can prepare a person to be able to recognize, but the actual recognition is an experience rather than words, and the severe subjectivity of experience is not readily shared with words alone.

Likewise, the experience of recognition relies on something other than - and results in something other than - mimicry. The O’Briens were a family that regularly went to church, and Jack no doubt at some point heard that it is just and proper to be kind even to, possibly especially to, outcasts: prisoners, lepers, and the like. And Jack remembers seeing his mother give a drink of water from her own cup to a clearly very thirsty prisoner whom the local police had in custody. There was a crowd of people around, but it was Jack’s mother alone who stepped forth in kindness, and Jack was in no way ashamed that his mother was the exception in kindness.

As a matter of fact, Jack must have reveled in pride about his mother, because, as young as he was, he, too, managed to behave in a similarly exceptional way. One of the neighborhood children had been disfigured in a fire, and it is often the case – particularly for children – that physical disfigurement renders the afflicted to some extent a veritable leper. One day, Jack thought he should express kindness to his scarred friend, and Jack did so by putting his arm on his friend’s shoulder.

Was Jack simply mimicking his mother? Or, was this a genuine expression of close affection, an expression arising out of an experience of recognizing an opportunity for that sort of love that is beyond mere preference?

Ultimately, the glory of that love which is the way of grace is experienced as being awash in opportunities for expressing love in ways that provide for others their own opportunities to have a new or renewed sense of being loved and, also, to love.

1 The style and essence of this apophatic expression is found in I Corinthians 13: 4-6, which says, “… love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong”.

2 Here the tension between the way of man (identified with mammon) and the way of grace (which is to say the way of God, hence the way of love) recapitulates Luke 16:13 - “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

3 See I Corinthians 13: 4.

4 “Make love your aim”, I Corinthians 14: 1.

5 Cited in Ohanian, Hans C., Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, p. 167, and paraphrased on p. 228.

6 Matthew 13: 31.

7 Matthew 13: 31-32.

8 See here for one such recent brief discussion.

This entry was posted in Film, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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