The Tree of Life is Far

Experiencing awe may have all sorts of tonic effects, including a better sense of perspective on time and priorities, more patience and charity toward others, and generally more satisfaction with life. … Those who were primed to feel awe—those volunteers also saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure. … Those who felt they had more available time were less impatient; they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others; and they were less materialistic. (more)

The Tree of Life is up for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars tonight. Though it has only 0.6%, 1.3% chances of winning, it is a great illustration of the ties between far mode, awe, and spirituality. I’ll need spoilers to explain – you are warned.

The movie starts with a specific emotionally devastating death, and then offers viewers an escape from that intolerable nearness with awe-inspiring sights that invoke vast space and time scales. These sights tend to contain a small number of types of objects, and only a few surfaces, each with mild texture. The sounds also tend toward low detail, evoking longer time scales.

The movie gradually shifts back to scenes that remember a childhood, but now seen with an idealizing moralizing color, trying to sum up a whole life. There’s a mostly perfect mom, and a mostly villain dad. Sometimes words are said that aren’t specific to a scene, but seem to make a general point, often speaking as if in prayer. These words tend to the metaphorical – they rarely have much precision or make much analytical sense. For example, the clearest distinction offered is between nature (bad) and grace (good), yet the very title of the movie rejects that distinction.

People describe the movie as spiritual, uplifting, and awe-inspiring. This all fits with our understanding of near vs. far thinking. Far mode is evoked by large space and time scales, smooth textures, small numbers of types, high level goals, moralizing, metaphor, and positive mood. And all these things evoke each other. A vivid near death is about the most negative and intense thing we can experience, and we naturally want to escape that. As the quotes above suggests, “awe” is a positive experience of far/big things. In far mode we can experience awe, and gain comfort. It seems to me that if our experience is awesome and comforting enough, we feel we have “transcended” our usual concerns, and we call that experience “spiritual.” And if we don’t understand the source of this feeling, we call it “mysterious.” 😉

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