Jungian analyst Diana Heritage explores the ways that Terrence Malick's film evokes that which we yearn to know--but most likely never will.
fReflections on The Tree of Life
There was a young man who said, “Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that knows me
When I know that I know that I know.”
- Alan Watts1
In his cinematic masterpiece The Tree of Life, Terence Malick visually evokes the heart of Alan Watts’ limerical inquiry into the nature of experience. Combining symbol and metaphor to express the inexpressible, he offers a powerful visual and visceral experience about that which we yearn to know, but most likely never will.
Malick’s depiction of the inner world of the child is one of the strongest appeals of the film. He poignantly captures the wonder and confusion, enchantment and turmoil that dominates childhood. The story illustrates the painful incongruencies between what a child feels and perceives and what he is told by those to whom his psyche has been entrusted. I felt a close kinship to Jack, whose early years bore an uncanny resemblance to my own and, no doubt, to many who were raised in the 50’s. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and attended a tiny Episcopal church every Sunday, where the value of children being “seen and not heard” was reinforced by an austere clergy. Sitting still, in order to ease the considerable fallout if I didn’t, and in the hope of making my mother proud of me if I did, is the overarching memory I have from being, as it were, in the house of God. My questions about humanity’s relationship to God came to life in the colorful Bible stories my grandmother told me as we worked in her wonderful garden. She’d get a faraway look in her eyes as she talked about how he reigned in heaven on a golden throne and that when it was our time to be called home, if we’d honored his laws, we’d be reunited with him and all of our loved ones who’ve been called home before us. My grandfather had died suddenly a month after I turned eight, and I worried about how he would know me, since I would be old by the time we met again (I was counting on that), and we could have trouble recognizing each other since we wouldn’t have bodies. She told me not to worry; everything we didn’t understand would make sense when we got to Heaven and, in the meantime, my job was just to be good. “Remember”, she’d say, bending over her tomato plants while I pulled weeds at her feet, “God knows the number of hairs on our heads.” How could that be, and why would it matter? I asked. But from the look she gave me I knew I’d have to wait and get the answer from One who knew all.
Sometimes my grandmother told stories about what happened when we didn’t obey God. “We’re banished from his sight for eternity,” she’d say in a low, sad tone, shaking her head. A good amount of my childhood was spent in absolute terror over this, almost certain that I was already doomed. I tried to be good but broke some commandment on practically a daily basis. No matter how guilty I felt or how hard I prayed, I couldn’t stop doing things and thinking about things that weren’t “being good,” my key to admission.
When I got a little older, I began to realize that a lot of the people I loved were in trouble if the things my grandmother had told me were true. I consoled myself with the notion that I would at least have some company where I was going, and one day I boldly announced that to her. “No ma’am. When we go there, we go alone. That,” she said emphatically, “is why it’s Hell!” I felt a lump in my throat and fought back tears. At the ripe age of eight, the place she described sounded a lot like how I already felt.
Somewhere around the age of ten it dawned on me that there must be a connection between how I was—including my insistence on asking questions about stuff that nobody but my grandmother would talk about—and the sense of alienation I felt on a daily basis. So I decided to change. For one, I’d stop asking dumb questions. “Just be more like your sister,” was my mother’s mantra. And life got easier, at least on the surface. It was almost three decades before I realized the impact that this decision had on my soul. As a kid, I just wanted to get some relief from feeling like a Martian and was glad I’d finally realized how to do it.
So while we may very well come from God “trailing clouds of glory,” as Wordsworth wrote, most children are given a limited framework in which to explore their archetypal longing. Shades of the prison house are drawn around us by way of our participation in collective conditioning. The weight of institutional expectations bears down hard and heavy on its young. Social games reinforce a particular kind of “spotlight consciousness,” as philosopher Alan Watts termed it. This over-identification with the ego, trained into us from childhood, narrows the beam of awareness, which in turn limits both our joy in the experience of being alive and our curiosity around what it’s all about. Laden with concretized metaphors and firm answers from “the big people,” our natural intelligence—what Watts refers to as floodlight consciousness, becomes dim. Separated from this source, we are left feeling, in the words of the poet A.E. Housman, “alone and afraid in a world I never made.” The following two verses from a native Houstonian contrast this alienated state with our deepest wisdom:
We human beings
Have place a boundary
Animals, plants, all of nature.
Don’t feel that difference.
I was walking
With my two year old
And she stopped
To ask every flower
“What is your name?”
While there are those who do continue their inquiries into the nature of existence in ways that are different from the religious and cultural norms acquired in childhood, many do not. With our young hearts and minds molded by the world around us, we rush, like Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches, to our place in line so we can be stamped with the star of social approval that will protect us from confronting the anxiety, and the profundity, of who we really are. Who are we, really? Now, there’s a question.
Jung believed that the most important question to reflect on is whether or not we are related to something infinite. He wrote, “If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change.” In contrast, when our predominant orientation to life is through the ego, everything that goes on outside the narrow scope of “me” is undervalued. Although an important stage of development, attachment to our individual drama limits our ability to see that we are part of a universal Self. When we do not see our life in relationship to a bigger picture, we project the need to connect to our depths onto external objects of desire.
The loss of a relationship to the numinous is the major cause of anxiety, depression and addiction. Paradoxically, it is the pain of these psychic disturbances that activates our unconscious longing for an abiding sense of the transpersonal and can return us to the questions, giving us a chance to find our way back to what we have forgotten, but known all along.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
These lines from the book of Job introduce the film and put the viewer on notice that he is about to see an archetypal story with deep roots in Judeo-Christian mythology. The temporal unfolds against the infinite as Malick artfully illustrates an inner journey of transformation. The Tree of Life is the story of modern man in search of his soul. It is about underground wisdom that rushes to the surface from time to time, often through an artist’s vision, to make us more conscious. Job experienced it. We have all experienced it—the creative force in the universe that we call God, the Unknowable that lies beyond our human grasp and yet dwells, as some traditions believe, like a flame in the center of our being.
“Dark is a way, Light is a place,” wrote Dylan Thomas. His words bookend this film about spiritual transformation. Set against a backdrop of the cosmos and spectacular displays of the violence and power of nature, including the evolution of our planet, the film tells the story of a man who is at the top of his game and yet mired in despair. Anyone who has ever questioned the meaning of existence—and who among us has not—can relate to the misery of Malick’s main character, a world-weary individual who exemplifies the spiritual bankruptcy of our egocentric society. Over the course of the film, his wholeness is restored through the relativization of the ego and a dawning awareness of his participation in a divine drama.
The director’s technique of flashing from archetypal imagery to personal memories illustrates the spontaneous eruption of unconscious material that takes place in the psyche at a time of great psychological peril. Malick’s intention may well have been to depict a period of intense self reflection, even a personal analysis that culminated in the healing of a religious problem. But we can also see the central character’s search for meaning as an analogue for all who participate in a quest for understanding of, and a deeper relationship with, the mystery that called us into being.
Recall Jack’s earliest utterances in the film: “Mother, brother, it is they who led me to your door.” Here we have intimations of the archetypal son/mother motif, suggesting that the “light of the world,” a new level of consciousness, will come from a relationship to the feminine principle—the urge toward relatedness and completion. Young Jack’s relationship to his tender, nature-loving mother, who showed him life through the eyes of the soul, is the key to Jack’s psychological and spiritual restoration. Sophia/Wisdom, a feminine aspect of the divine that is reemerging in the consciousness of the collective after millenia of devaluation, is clearly evoked by the character of Jack's mother. Sophia appears in the Torah: "Her ways are pleasant and all her paths are peace."3 In the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, she is "the worker of all things" and "in her is an understanding spirit, holy." As "the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God," Sophia "passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness."4 Recall Jack's fantasy of his mother floating around an enormous tree, the most prominent symbol of the mother goddess, in the family's front yard. Compare this luminous image of her deeply sensitive and almost beatific nature with these lines from Ecclesiasticus, written in 200 BC:
I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus,
And as a cypress tree upon the mountains
I was exalted like a palm tree in En-gaddi,
And as a rose plant in Jerico,
As a fair olive tree in a pleasant field,
And grew up as a plane tree by the water.
As the turpentine tree I stretched out my branches,
And my branches are the branches of honor and grace.
“With God before creation, she is part of the primordial divine.” “She is the wisdom of the universe.” “The anima mundi. The soul of the world.” “As intermediary, she provides the bridge between the creator and creation.” “She is the immortal part of man.” “She is synonymous with nature, the tree one of her most prominent symbols.” “Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.” “She is the light and the fire within.”
Tension builds within young Jack between the conflicting values of his parents, creating intense anxiety and a division that he is not equipped to reconcile. As with all children, his parents take on archetypal proportions. They are gods. While his early life was infused with aspects of the feminine, Jack is exposed to new and diverse ideas about God as his world expands. He is influenced by the values of his authoritarian and sometimes hypocritical father, and events beyond his home lead him to intolerable questions: “Where were you? You let a boy die!” “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” An internal battle between the competing aspects of his nature rages within him: “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside me.” In the process of growing up, Jack’s relationship to the instinctual feminine aspect of his nature is relegated to the unconscious. By the time he and his family drive away from his boyhood home, the gates to the garden have closed.
The film returns to the adult Jack, who is pressing forward on his path to deeper understanding. Surrendering to a process that appeared through his suffering, Jack has a numinous vision. Coming up through a rock structure that looks much like a birth canal, he follows a young woman and the boy he had been through a threshold and sees with new eyes: “Knock and the door shall be open to you.” Walking toward a gathering of people, he sees those he has known and loved since childhood, some dead and some living. On the beach, near the edge of the ocean, he moves among them in what Melville referred to as “That profound silence, the only voice of God.” Malick artfully depicts an eternal space where nothing is separated and time is suspended. Witnessing the opposites unite, Jack is released from the burden of sorrow, anger, and guilt as he senses the underlying unity and harmony of all that is, which transcends rational thought. Through wisdom, the intolerable condition of the contradictory nature of God is resolved. Only acceptance, awe, and love remain.
At the beginning of the film we hear the mother’s voice: “There are two ways to be in life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.” Nature is the attitude of “dog eat dog” as my dad used to say, an Okie version of Lord Tennyson’s more poetic “red in tooth and fang.” Grace brings a spiritual dimension to life; one realizes that whatever pain has been endured is purposeful, part of a larger process. There is a level of trust and feeling of support in the universe, even in hard times.
In the final scene Jack stands before an enormous bridge, a symbol of his awareness of the relationship between the finite and the infinite, a source of transpersonal wisdom, support and guidance. He looks at the world around him as though he is seeing it all again for the first time. A knowing smile comes over his face and the screen goes dark. The glowing light that introduced the film reappears along with the sound of birds. The Imperishable, the eternally Changeless dances.
Whatever the learned interpretation may be of the sentence ‘God is love,’ the words affirm the complexio oppositorum of the Godhead. In my medical experience as well as in my own life I have again and again been faced with the mystery of love, and have never been able to explain what it is. Like Job, I had to ‘lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer.’ (Job 40;4 f.) Here is the greatest and smallest, the remotest and nearest, the highest and lowest, and we cannot discuss one side of it without also discussing the other. No language is adequate to this paradox. Whatever one can say, no words express the whole. To speak of partial aspects is always too much or too little, for only the whole is meaningful. Love ‘bears all things’ and ‘endures all things’ (1 Cor. 13: 7 ). These words say all there is to be said; nothing can be added to them. For we are in the deepest sense the victims and the instruments of cosmogonic ‘love.’ I put the word in quotation marks to indicate that I do not use it in its connotations of desiring, preferring, favoring, wishing, and similar feelings, but as something superior to the individual, a unified and undivided whole. 6
This passage appears in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung’s autobiography, which was written near the end of his life. Malick’s magnificent achievement lies in evoking the inexhaustible mystery of love in images. No language is adequate to the task.