The Enigma of Anger
"Be not too hasty," said Imlac, "to trust, or to admire,
the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels,
but they live like men."
—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas
Only three limbs of a sugar maple tree, none thicker than my arm but each broad enough to shade a horse, lay in a sprinkling of sawdust by the side of the road. On the trunk above them, three pathetic stumps oozed sap. This was my tree, one of the beautiful ancient maples that line our rural Vermont property where it meets the road. Those trees had caught our eye even before my wife and I had seen the "For Sale" sign on what is now our home. I love to walk past those maples on afternoons when I finish work, and evenings before turning again to more work; I had especially longed to do so on that cloudy June day before unbuckling a briefcase full of final exams that would keep me up much of the night. Mine was a smug little joy, I realized even then, as much the pride of ownership as the appreciation of nature, but I didn't care. We want our joys to be harmless; we don't need them to be noble. But now even that small joy was cut short by the sight of those sawn-off limbs, enigmatic and almost insulting at my feet.
The town road crew had cut them off the tree; I was sure of that. The men had been grading that section of road in the afternoon just before I came home. I was less sure as to why they had cut them. The limbs had not hung out over the road. They had not been near any telephone or power lines. They had not been rotten or in danger of falling off. The only plausible reason I could imagine was that the road crew had cut off the limbs to make it easier to turn the grader, though there was an access to a hay field where they might have done the same thing less than a hundred feet away. Could they really have been so lazy?
But then, there didn't have to be a plausible reason, did there? Maybe one of the men had just felt like sawing off a few limbs—no different, really, from a kid in my classroom feeling in the mood to toss a rumpled wad of paper over my shoulder and into the trash can or to stick out his foot when another student walked by—except that no kid in my classroom would dare do such a thing. Well, some of the men around here (I muttered to myself) believe that nothing grows out of the earth or slips through a birth canal for any purpose better than to be cut down or shot. Today the limbs, tomorrow the whole damn tree, what the heck. If there's dynamite available, so much the better. And I did not think it irrational to suppose that there was a message intended by the gratuitous sawing off of those limbs, something like the message I'd found soaped on my car windows on the first Halloween after we'd moved in: "F— you" plus "Ain't Vermont great?"—a message to the flatlanders lest they get too cozy in their precious little farmhouse and forget who was really in charge around here. We had scarcely lived in town long enough to strike up a conversation, let alone to make an enemy.
That was going to change. Tomorrow morning at 7, or whenever the town garage opened, I was going to deliver a little message of my own, which is that if you want to touch something that belongs to me, you'd better talk to me first or be prepared to talk to me afterward; and talking to me afterward, as I was fully prepared to demonstrate, is never a good way to start your day. And nobody had better give me any regulatory drivel about "right of way" either; you want to pull out your little rule books, I might show you a few rules you never heard of. Three healthy limbs sawn off a tree—for absolutely no reason. And I knew how this stuff worked—you don't teach school without learning how these things work: It's a matter of incremental aggression, beginning with something so deliberately small that you'll look like a fool if you complain and ending with something so outrageously nasty that you'll feel like a fool that you didn't. So much for that bit about choosing your battles. The battle I choose is every single battle that chooses me, and I fight to win every last one. Go on, tell me it's only three limbs off a tree. I want somebody to tell me it's only three limbs off a tree. How about if I break only three limbs on an idiot? God, was I mad!
God … was I mad?
I am a descendant of angry men. My father had a temper. I used to help him work on his cars, and it was rare that we could finish a job without at least one minor flare-up. It was just as rare that we closed the hood with hard feelings. My father once confided to my mother, who wisely shared his confidence with me: "Gary could tell me to go screw myself, but I would still know he loved me." It was the truth. It had been the truth for men in our family before either of us was born.
My great-grandfather, a Dutch Reformed minister, is said to have cursed his Heavenly Father following the deaths of his wife and two young daughters from tuberculosis. He is also said to have refused to sign a doctrinal confession affirming the damnation of all heathen souls. Though after long wanderings he returned to the pulpit (first crossing the Atlantic to the United States) and though it's doubtful he ever lost his faith (one doesn't curse what one doesn't believe to exist), the image of his clenched fist shaken in the face of heaven, and perhaps in the faces of his seminary too, has long been with me.
So have the stories of his son, my grandfather and namesake, another angry ancestor I never knew. One day he came home from work to discover that a neighbor had conveniently emptied the contents of his cesspool next to the sand pile where his son and daughter played across the street. My grandfather threatened to hoist the neighbor up by his ankles if every trace of filth was not removed within 24 hours. "And when you're finished, you cheap Holland bastard," roared the minister's son, "you get on your knees and pray."
The phrase "Dutch temper" and the phrase "cheap Holland bastard"—uttered by a Hollander no less—are two signifiers of my heritage, a patrimony passed with fiery love from father to son. They are not the only signifiers, however. Life would be too easy if they were. My first reading of the Gospels was from a New Testament presented by my great-grandfather to my father when my parents were first married. That too was part of the same heritage, and it ensured that my Dutch temper could seldom exist without Christian remorse, nor Christian meekness without some inner resistance. The story of my journey in faith has often amounted to the story of my struggle with anger.
I am writing about anger for at least three specific reasons. All of them are vividly personal, though I trust that they are no less common than anger itself.
- My anger has often seemed out of proportion—that is, too great or too little, but more often too great—for the occasion that gave rise to it.
- My anger has more often distressed those I love and who love me than it has afflicted those at whom I was angry.
- My anger has not carried me far enough toward changing what legitimately enrages me. In fact, the anger often saps the conviction.
It's fair to say that I am writing not only about anger, but also in anger. In other words, anger is in some ways my inspiration as well as my subject. I can give three reasons for that as well.
First, I have grown increasingly impatient with the blithe reductionism of the so-called self-help movement. I have grown impatient at seeing the laudable idea that life is a series of struggles to be undertaken—or questions to be asked or burdens to be borne—replaced with the idea that life is essentially a set of problems to be solved by the adoption of the right program (spiritual or electronic) or the purchase of the right product (pharmaceutical or electronic).
I have also grown increasingly angry at our full-bellied acquiescence to social and economic injustice. I'm referring to the notion that everything other than the perfectible self is too vast and complex to admit to any remedy whatsoever, and that our best course of (in)action lies in ironical detachment or in the cultivation of an abrasive attitude that delivers some of the release, but packs none of the punch, of well-aimed rage. Our advertising and even our arts convey the idea that we as a society are brash, irreverent, and free of all constraint, when the best available evidence would suggest that we are in fact tame, spayed, and easily brought to heel.
And finally, I am writing in petulant resistance to the idea that anger is an emotion with no rightful place in the life of a Christian or in the emotional repertoire of any evolved human being. Darwinian evolution I can buy; most of the other forms, however, I can neither buy nor stomach. Darwin saw us linked with the animals, and therefore to the material creation as a whole; so do the Old and New Testaments. But the popular theology (most of it Gnostic) that portrays perfection as the shedding of every primitive instinct, and portrays God as an impersonal sanitizing spirit, is to my mind evidence of a satanic spirit. The Lord my God is a jealous God and an angry God, as well as a loving God and a merciful God. I am unable to imagine one without the other. I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn't knock over tables.
A few years ago I told a dear friend of mine that I was going to write a book someday for angry men and women. "I think there need to be more of them," he quipped. I'm inclined to agree. But if he's right, if more of us need to be angry, then it follows that we shall require a more careful application of anger and a finer discernment of when anger applies.
I never did go to the town garage the morning after I found those three severed tree limbs. That night as I sat at the kitchen table correcting final exams, I began to hear a noise "as of a rushing wind" but of such an immediate and dreadful intensity that I could not at first be certain it was the wind. I remember fixing my eyes on one of the dark windowpanes, which seemed about to shatter at any second, and thinking that the force outside could not possibly increase. It increased. I did not think I was dying, but the unreal sensation of those moments must be what it is like suddenly to realize that you are about to die. The rain was falling too hard. The next crack of thunder might be louder than we could bear. The lights snapped off. The roof sounded as though it were being ripped from the house.
I rushed my wife and our year-old daughter into the basement and then foolishly went upstairs to see what was happening and what I could do, which of course was nothing. Within a few minutes, the worst of the storm had passed. The rain subsided enough for me to see through the windows. One of the maple trees in our yard was snapped in two. Moving to the front windows, I saw to my horror that half of the roof of our large barn across the road was gone, rafters and steel together.
For the next three days we were without electric power. Two-hundred-year-old maple trees and limbs the size of telephone poles lay across the road for more than a mile. The central path of the storm—and there is still disagreement more than a decade later as to whether it was a small tornado or simply a thunderstorm with a terrific downdraft—crossed the road about a quarter mile from our house and cut a swath of toppled trees and peeled roofs that extended through an entire county and beyond. In spite of the commotion we had heard, our house roof was spared. But 20-foot-square sections of steel and beam from the barn lay hundreds of yards behind our house in a hay field. They had been torn from the barn and blown over the house. They might just as easily have been blown through it.
How puny my three limbs seemed in comparison to such carnage. And how puny my anger seemed in comparison to such fury. It was difficult for me not to think of them as related in some way, as temptation and warning, as sin and punishment, even as the psychological cause of a meteorological effect. Or as I've since come to think of them, as a man's paltry anger defused by God's tremendous mercy.
I took my chain saw out to the road and began to cut one of the massive limbs that lay across it. One of the road crew drove up, rolled down his window, and thanked me for saving him some work. Had he gotten out of his car, I would have thrown my arms around him.
Garret Keizer is the author of No Place But Here: A Teacher's Vocation in a Rural Community and A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry, as well as a novel, God of Beer. He lives in northeastern Vermont with his wife and daughter. This essay is excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company, from Keizer's new book, The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin. Copyright ©2002 by Garret Keizer.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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