Megan Rosker sees the movie Tree of Life and is left with the idea that curiosity is what answers our darkest questions and spurs us forward as a collective community of thinkers.
Last week my husband and I sat down to watch Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011). There is a lot to be written about this film, but I am choosing to pluck one concept from the repertories of commentary presented. Malick takes the viewer on a curious, emotional search for the meaning of life. While we ride his esoteric roller coaster, we observe the boyish curiosity of Young Jack (Hunter McCracken), a youngster growing up in mid-twentieth century America.
The curiosity portrayed in Jack’s life is one of launching off bottle rockets, playing with cap guns, breaking windows, exploring an abandon cabin in the woods, swimming in a nearby river. It is a life in which today’s wisdom is forgotten for tomorrow’s thrill. More than once my husband commented on the extraordinary freedom Jack has in the film. He is seen wandering streets at dusk, even walking into a woman’s house while she isn’t home. He opens her bureau drawer to touch her bras and panties, eventually even stealing a silk nightie. He is so ashamed of his theft, however, that he sets the nightie free in the river to be washed downstream, along with his sin of youthful lust.
In my personal life I have watched my sons hit each other with sticks during sword fights and wrestle each other to the ground. Just yesterday I observed my seven-year-old rolling head over feet with another boy at the playground, pushing and punching. It’s the dance of the discovery of strength and power. It’s the planning of a well-placed punch that keeps them there locked against the cold ground, neither of them willing to surrender. Curiosity of strength and power dominates.
Malick shows the journey of a young boy’s life as one that is filled with the tensions of right and wrong, power and struggle. It is through these tensions, the inevitable curiosities of boyhood, that Malick looks to stir in all of us the thirst of curiosity. He wants us all to long to explore with the same innocence as a young boy why are we here. I would suspect that Malick himself is curious as to the answer of this question.
I wonder, when was the last time any of us considered the importance of curiosity? We consider the importance of many other aspects of childhood — safety and education of course being at the top of the list. But when was the last time we valued the childlike innocence in our children or in ourselves? In this visual masterpiece, Malick presents us with the idea that curiosity is the only thing that will answer our darkest questions and spur us forward as a collective community of thinkers.
Curiosity isn’t tidy. It can’t be contained in parenting books and school curriculum and never do we see curiosity portrayed like this in Tree of Life. Instead it is wild like nature, unpredictable, scary and seldom as gentle as we wish it would be. Curiosity is the ultimate search for truth and young Jack wants to know, just as all our sons want to know, just as Malick wants to know, why are we here?
Jack wants to know the truth about his relationship with his mother, his father, his brothers. His curiosity is unceasing throughout the film and this causes an emotional disturbance in Jack. He can’t get the answers he is looking for. If we strap our children in too tightly, if any of us hold back too much our curiosity in life, this the frustration that will doubtingly arise.
Curiosity is innately built into a child. It is built into all of us, but as we age we allow it to be tamed, bound in the ropes of worry, fear and distrust of ourselves. In reality it is only curiosity that can propel us forward to search for truths whether we are young or old.
Boys can be wild, gregarious, scheming and violent. Jack is all of these things and many of our sons possess these same characteristics. Our own evolution embodies these characteristics as well. The answers as to where we came from and how we will evolve are questions I highly doubt will be discovered systematically in a lab somewhere. Instead it will be a moment of enlightenment that befalls the curious seeker, who has searched recklessly and longed unceasingly for a glimpse of understanding. In a moment of sheer grace the universe and all its answers will be, for a second, available. That is the kind of curiosity that is required to answer the questions Malick poses.
And we cannot possibly begin to answer such questions in the repressed culture we currently live in.
We want our boys to be tame, polite, gentle and intellectual, just as we want our science and our religion to unfold in an orderly fashion the reasons why we exist. But will science and religion ever be able to do that? If we destroy the curiosity of our sons, we destroy the carriers of our culture curiosity. Who will shatter our false theories with rocks picked up by the river? Who will have the guts to wander into the unknown? We must preserve the sacred exploration of our sons before boyish curiosity becomes extinct, before we are engulfed by propriety and the polite talk of parlor conversation. Jack is simply a metaphor for the angst we all sometimes feel for being the dealt the hand we have. He is a metaphor for the tension and desire we have to understand and the tension we have to stay within the safety of our current understanding. We have the power to push past our inhibitions and look curiously and fearlessly at our world for the answers we most wish to attain. Can we do that with the same conviction that a boy pokes a stick at a rattle snake or jumps from a rock into a river below? Can we be so bold as to be curious?