The other night, my little Molly Grace came in at suppertime. She was muddy bedraggled, and limping a bit. This is not unusual. Molly and Finn frequently come in to supper, covered in mud and grass-stains. They are often limping too, but they almost always have silly-looking grins plastered on their faces as well. But something was different this night. Molly’s cheeks were dirty and tear-stained and she couldn’t really talk, without starting to cry all over again. When I asked if she was hurt, she shook her head, so I just hugged her while I ran a hot bath, figuring a little love was the best remedy for what ailed her and I had a pretty good guess what it was.
To say that our cul-de-sac is a little “masculine” would be an understatement. It is athletic, dirty, physical, and loud. If you set foot on our front grass, you are signing up for a full-body, contact version of whatever sport is being played. The six kids who share the front yard (3 of ours & 3 of theirs) have invented more games than I can count, but all of them allow, perhaps even encourage, tripping, tackling, kicking, goal-scoring and shoddy refereeing. Usually, there is another little girl out there to balance the feminine factor, but that night, Molly was trying to hold her own, against the aggressive gamesmanship of at least 4 much bigger boys. She is not one to give up, but she cashed in her chips early that night. Luckily, the only serious injury was to her pride and sense of justice.
She just kept repeating, “Those boys are just so hard.” She didn’t have another word for it and I didn’t think I should label it for her.
Her experience reminded me of a movie I watched last week called The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt. Despite his box-office appeal, I don’t think it did very well and I am not surprised after seeing it. It’s not what you’d expect.
The movie opens with these lines, spoken in a young woman’s, beautiful, lilting voice.
There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself and others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is smiling around it and love is shining through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
You don’t know to whom she is speaking or why, but as I listened, I didn’t care and that was the trick to enjoying the movie. You couldn’t care about the details, like plot and resolution. You had to absorb the images and the allegories. This was not a family drama; rather, this was the tension between human nature and grace personified, in a human family, a mother and father and their sons.
The father is not evil. That would make it too simple, too familiar of a story. The father is just human: disappointed in and proud of his sons at the same time. In love with and frustrated by his beautiful, but silent wife. Engaged in and stifled by his job and his dreams in equal measure and as such, he is mercurial and unpredictable. He is laughing and affectionate one moment, but angry and rough the next. The more he pushes his boys to love him, the further they pull away. It sounds like many fathers I know, including my own thirty years ago.
The fear in his sons’ eyes might be his fault, but I sympathized with him, because it is not a level playing field. He is married to grace incarnate. The mother is always loving, affectionate and kind. She is playful, and whimsical. She is seemingly perfect, but not in any way that makes you distrust or despise her, because unlike the ‘perfect’ women we know, it’s not a sham. This woman is not meant to be one of us. She is meant to be grace: for these boys, for this man, to save them from their human nature.
Her grace cannot save the father, but her sons can’t help but be affected by the love that pours over them every day. In one of the few scenes where she speaks at all, she tells them, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
The young boys try; you watch them struggle with the humanity inside them and the grace they’ve been given, which never fails. The eldest son, who has born the brunt of his father’s all-too-human pain, struggles the most to live out his mother’s message of grace. He says to his father in a moment of anger and confusion, “I wrestle with you inside me. I am more like you than I am like her.” And you can tell he is saddened by that reality.
My son is 13, about the same age as the boy in the movie, when he has that conversation with his father. I know that he too struggles within himself to be a gentle man, the kind of man we want him to be: strong and sure of himself on the playing field, or in the classroom and yet ever mindful of the gift of grace he’s been given and which it is his obligation to bestow. When Molly came in crying that night, wounded, my first impulse was to go out and lecture Finn (and his friends) about looking out for the little ones. But remembering the The Tree of Life stopped me. Grace can’t be forced. It can only be given time and time again. It works best in silence when it wants to heal, to inspire, to love.
Those boys were working out their human nature with each other and my little 9-year-old girl got herself caught in the crossfire. It isn’t the first time and I don’t think it will be the last. She’s got her own little humanity to work out, even if her middle name is Grace.