Garret Keizer is the Episcopal priest of a small rural parish and the author of A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, an account of the years when he was a high school teacher and lay vicar of a congregation in Island Pond, Vermont. In this multidimensional collection of essays he speaks out "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."
Keizer begins with the legacy in his family of "Dutch temper" passed down from father to son along with a healthy sense of Christian remorse. The author sees himself as an angry man for three reasons: "1. 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. 2. My anger has more often distressed those I love and who love me than it has affected those at whom I was angry. 3. My anger has not carried me far enough toward changing what legitimately enrages me. In fact, the anger often saps the conviction." Anyone who reads these words will identify with some of the perplexity and shame that Keizer feels. They will also be impressed by the author's honesty in admitting to these feelings and acknowledging these flaws.
In the writings of the Desert Fathers there is this entry: "Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years in Scete praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger." This is an emotion with lots of firepower and energy attached to it. Oddly enough, solitude brings us in close contact with anger and our inherent capacity for violence. Keizer quotes a passage from May Sarton in her journals: "Now I hope to break through into the rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved."
In his conscientious effort to break through into his own depths and to survey the private and public lives of others, the author includes chapters on anger in the Lord, in the head, in the house, in the church, and in the world. There are bits on Jonah, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Agamemnon, Medea and Sethe, and more. Keizer does a fine job covering the mentality and unreality of anger when things get blown out of proportion. He makes an especially perspicacious analysis of road rage: "Road rage is typically a loss of reality. Both the perceived offense and the response to it are completely out of proportion. Someone cuts you off, and suddenly you want to cut her throat. Someone seizes an advantage, and you're ready to hunt him down like prey. . . . The person who takes advantage of an opening in traffic is a pushy bastard; the person who checks my doing the same thing is an uptight jerk. If I'm lost, the other driver has no patience; if the other driver's lost, I have no time. The only thing real in this picture is me. There are plenty of out-of-car examples of this kind of meanness and madness, to be sure, but rage on the road offers one of the best illustrations I know of the connection between egotism, anger and too little else in the concrete world of creation."
Keizer points out the positive uses of anger by the prophets and the contemporary worth of righteous indignation. But in the last analysis, he defines anger rather well as "nothing more than a hasty judgment registered as a nasty emotion." It behooves us as Christians to discern our brothers and sisters in the angry people we come across and to try to imagine the pain that drives them to rage or worse. Keizer concludes by admonishing us to "cultivate a more generous attitude, a more liberal heart."