Yesterday I finished watching Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and I can now say that it is my favorite film of all time. For me, this masterpiece is for cinema what Cloud Atlas is for books, and Journey for video games - it is, to paraphrase a quote from my first analysis of the latter work, "a mystical experience in cinematic form". I make this claim quite seriously. Through a masterful juxtaposition of symbolic imagery, along with a very large dose of humanity, this film transcends the limits of its medium and becomes something altogether more.
But this film also touched me in a very personal and emotional way. You see, for me this film most directly and relevantly concerns the discrepancy between the meaning which we seek after as human beings and the immensity of a vast and seemingly unforgiving cosmos or God. I find myself asking to that effect, "what does any of this matter?", or to quote the film, "who are we to You?". We seek frantically after something which will make our life meaningful and will make us seem somehow "big" in the face of this infinity, but we ultimately fail to do so and are constantly reminded of our nothingness. What are we to do, then? How are we to deal with the our inevitable insignificance when compared to this expanse? To give an answer, let me digress for a bit from The Tree of Life and revisit another transcendent work - the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Wittgenstein is well-aware of mankind's inability to find more than fleeting meaning in their lives, and he offers a stunning solution. Here it is. in two parts:
"The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value - and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world." (6.41)
"The temporal immortality of the soul of man, that is to say, its eternal survival also after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the face that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time." (6.4312)
We cannot, in other words, flee to something in space and time in order to find refuge from its absurdity. This problem seems really quite simple now that it's been stated so clearly, right? After all, the proposition that we must flee from life in the accidental world is almost self-evident when looked at in the right way. But how are we to do this? How can we escape from this world and reach something higher? To answer this question, let's return to the film we started out with, for The Tree of Life depicts nothing else then such an ascension.
In The Tree of Life, Sean Penn's character is a man troubled by his past. Inspired by the overboard strictness of his father, he follows, or at least did follow, what the movie terms "the way of nature" - being self-centered without concern for others. His brother and mother, on the other hand, followed "the way of grace" - being happy and loving despite abuse to one's self. But this brother tragically died when he was young. It forced everyone in his family to come face to face with their lives, but more importantly with the aforementioned absurdity of the world of space and time, of life and death. This leads Sean Penn's character and his Mother to deeply ponder their life and its meaning. It is after the bulk of these recollections, interspersed with gorgeous symbolic imagery, that they seem to reach a conclusion. The mother's voice says this:
"The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder. Hope."
To escape from space and time, we must love. This does not mean to just be nice to people or to merely do "good deeds", as it goes much deeper than that. No, to love is to adore and cherish every single thing you see and encounter in the world, to the point where you regard it all as a gift from and an extension of God. This is what people mean by living for the moment. We must not ignore what is in front of us - to be happy we must see it as a manifestation of God's glory and magnificence, to love it with all of our heart.
To turn like this from spite to love can begin in a single moment of uninvited awe. This is what happens to Sean Penn's character, for immediately after the Mother says the above words he begins to have what can only be termed a mystical experience:
As the camera focuses on a sunlit sky, he rides a glass elevator up a countless number of floors. It then cuts to him in a barren desert, where he is brought in front of an empty wooden door frame.
He walks through, and immediately finds himself on beach where a multitude of people are ambling around. But they do not do this meaninglessly, for you can tell by their actions and expressions that they are immensely happy and relieved to be there. But most importantly, his family is on the beach with him. He embraces his mother, lovingly pats his father on the back, and carries his brother around on his shoulders. It seems very clear that what is happening here is nothing less than love incarnate. It is the place where love comes from, a place gloriously outside of space and time, independent of all happening and being-so. It is Eternity. As the scene ends, he rides the elevator back down and resumes his life, now seen through different eyes.
We too can walk through doors to Eternity. All it takes is for us as human beings to adore without reservation everything in our field of experience: every person, every blade of grass, and every single particle. This transcendence happens when we truly appreciate the world for what it is, and allow the light of the infinite to shine through. It happens when we love, for God is love, and love lets us enter his presence.