Garret Keizer offers two definitions of anger in The Enigma of Anger. He calls it “an emotion of extreme frustration . . . poised at the possibility of action”; but it is also “an emotion arising from a refusal to suffer or to permit violation.” Anger can be a deadly sin, visiting injustice on others (and on oneself) in its intemperance, yet it can also be a sign of divine justice that refuses to countenance abuse. Keizer’s anatomy of anger is an attempt both to come to terms with his own temper (“I am a descendant of angry men”) and to limn anger’s battle lines in the mind, the home, the church, and in the larger world. In the midst of it all is the conviction that “anger can be redeemed. . . . [A]nger can be controlled without being destroyed, and expressed without necessarily leading to destruction.”
The Enigma of Anger is decidedly not a self-help book, for one of the things Keizer is angry about is the glibness of the self-help movement in its goal of curing life of every problem, step by step. Instead, the author offers observations from the trenches, with the deftness of novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner and (at times) the acerbity of Samuel Johnson. One of the first headnotes of the book, in fact, is a quotation from Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), in which the wise philosopher Imlac notes the difference between a moralist’s exalted pronouncements and his everyday life. Johnson is never far from Keizer and he returns at the end as something of a role model.
“Johnson seemed born to struggle,” Keizer observes,
and not only with his petulance, though that is the main reason for celebrating him here. . . . The inner struggles of Johnson boil down in many cases to the plight of a man who was a Christian by conviction, but not by disposition. . . . Johnson’s life is of great interest to me, not only because of a similar tension between my own temperament and my religion, but because I believe that the religion itself is based on a certain inner tension. . . . In Johnson we see a simultaneous insistence on the sinful state of humanity and on the duty of human beings to be better than they are.
Anger has a place in the Christian life, and indeed in the life of every mature adult. At its best it is analogous to God’s wrath at injustice and idolatry and to Christ’s anger at the money changers in the Temple. The Gospel of Mark also records that Jesus was angry at those who criticized him for healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. Sometimes, however, his anger is mysterious. Jesus cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit, and it withered. For Keizer this is not some safe parable on the importance of faith bearing fruit but vivid expression of the idealism of the creator of life. “I do not understand his cursing of that tree. I do not like what he does. But on some level, in the same deep place that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and believe, also, that I shall one day see John Brown in heaven, I love him for it.”
Anger can lead to excess, and there is reason for calling it one of the seven deadly sins. Each of the six other sins (Keizer pairs pride with envy, lust with gluttony, and sloth with avarice) angrily overreaches. Pride and envy are based on a false view of oneself and others. Pride puffs up and is angry at those who do not see but is also angry at those who do. The envious rage at not having what they think they deserve. Lust and gluttony deny bodily boundaries. The glutton binges and then purges so the cycle can be repeated. The lustful does as well: “In its most extreme forms . . . lust attempts to increase its pleasure through the sensation or infliction of pain. Lust never arrives at the throne of grace. Lust never comes.” How dare another criticize what lust and gluttony demand? As for avarice and sloth, Keizer points out that they are both death wishes. “The slothful spouse and the avaricious spouse are both absentees. They’re no fun. They inspire a sense of bereavement in those who love them. They’re as good as dead.” Anger is kindled when loved ones step in and try to shake some life into the dying.
Keizer’s abiding concern is with anger as a response to an imagined sense of disproportion that usually starts in the mind. The angry person assumes that others are fully aware of his or her deepest thoughts and values and really do intend this or that slight.
Fear fuels anger, especially when one’s projects or principles appear to be threatened. There is also the fear of suffering. Keizer relates...
(The entire section is 1861 words.)