My son and I, separated by half a continent, had been talking on the phone for 30 minutes when he asked if he could break for dinner and call me again afterwards. I suggested I get back to him the next weekend, but he really wanted to talk some more, "about all this war stuff and what Bush is doing." I knew how he felt and why it was important, so I agreed. When we were back on the phone an hour later—he in his tiny apartment, I on a back deck in suburbia—I tossed the topic over the plate and let him swing, which he did with admirable verve.
He hated it, the entire war: the shabby justifications, the refusal to face facts, the secrecy and spying, the vilification of dissent, the U.S. public’s vacuous knee-jerk support for the president. Thin-skinned, raw-edged, and 20, he poured forth a torrent of frustration and rage, waxing eloquent on the mindlessness of people still believing Saddam Hussein bombed the Towers. What was that about? What could I do but listen and confirm that, yes, things were fully as bad as he believed? I couldn’t contradict a thing he said, and he would have dismissed any attempt to cheer him up as patronizing.
As he talked, however, it seemed to me that his rage was bordering on despair, if not misanthropy. His grief and fury at human self-destructiveness were tempting him to wish others suffering as punishment for their folly, as if their own folly weren’t causing them suffering enough. I struggled to find something to say to mitigate this near-despair, but in the end I had to confess that I had no answer. His fury had awakened my own, no longer sedated by half a century’s endurance. I had been battling the same rage, the same rancor, for 30-some years on and off, and the lunacy of the past few had ignited it again. I could only recommend patience, feeling the defeat of a doctor dealing with a chronic pain patient who cannot really be helped.
People can be destructive, unthinking, vicious, and false; and sometimes whole nations go mad. Not the whole truth, surely, but surely truth in part. Every morning’s paper brings grim tidings of bad news that shall be to all people, whether in the guise of senseless crimes or as outbreaks of national aggression. But for all that, I still fear that the rancor in my heart, the rancor that resonates so loudly with that voiced by my son, qualifies as sin, as rebellion; it hurts, and it just seems wrong.
For months I had written letters to editors, sent e-mails to legislators, taken part in rallies, all in the attempt to stop the president from launching a preemptive strike against a country that never threatened us. I had hoped and believed I was doing God’s will. The result: tanks rumbled across the desert, black plumes rose over cities, children lay shattered and bandaged, the faces of the dead covered the paper. So now I sit in the long silence of meeting, my heart a smoking coal within me. To sound it for decay, I test it with little experimental pokes where God and I can observe the results.
What do I wish for? The war to end? Yes, of course! Yesterday! Bring back the troops and to hell with the chest-thumpers! But is that all? What if I had the president before me—the two of us, alone? A blue flame ripples over the coal. I want to scream at the president : "How dare you! How dare you! Every death in this war is your fault! Yours!" I want to shout at him to repent! As I allow my fantasy its head, both appalled and thrilled by it, I suspect that I might even prefer screaming at him to having him repent. Could I, after these past heart-sickening years, even stand his repentance? Or would I sit under my flourishing gourd, furious that the Lord had spared Washington, that wicked city?
It would be something even to know for sure that my fury was sinful, but I’m not even sure of that. I am reminded of the prophets, filled with anguish and rage, weary of holding in. I think of the Baptist castigating the viper’s brood (Matt. 3:7-10). I think of Jesus beside himself at an adulterous generation or exasperated beyond measure at the obtuseness of the Apostles. There’s a precedent here for outrage, but is it a warrant? Before I accept a license for my rancor, I remember other warnings: The anger of humans does not accomplish the ends of God. Whoever says "You fool!" shall be liable to gehenna [hell] (Matt.5:22).
It is one of the great consolations of the Lord’s Prayer that it constitutes one long admission of ignorance: "Thy kingdom come." Rather than my second-guessing the route to a just world order, I hand the wheel back to God. Your politics, not mine.
"Thy will be done." I read and read, think and think, and have no sure idea what to do, not even what to hope for. I could use some direction.
"And lead us not into temptation." I think rancor qualifies as a temptation, but if God wishes me to strive for justice, and if God afflicts me with this fury to drive my efforts, perhaps I should not be so quick to renounce it. A better person, perhaps, would seek righteousness purely out of compassion; the refractory mule needs whipping.
So I murmur the Lord’s Prayer, comforted by the ignorance it admits. I also—but only because Jesus said to—try to pray for those who brought this war upon us. I make one good, earnest attempt to hold them in the Light, and then I rest.
Whatever else happens, it’s hard not to regain some sort of composure after an hour in meeting of shutting up, holding still, and attending to the still small voice. By 11:30 I can count on being somewhat less fractious. It’s something.
But now it’s Wednesday. I have no hour of silence today to still my heart. Instead, I read the paper over breakfast, pouring caffeine on the flames; and then, my heart smoldering once more, I try to go about my day’s affairs as constructively as I can. And it’s difficult. I can hardly think for the crackling in my brain. Then, as I walk to the train or drive to the grocery or sit in my office, I realize that, for the moment at least, I am calm, genuinely serene, even cheerful. I discovered years ago, in a time of personal suffering, that these hurricane eyes occasionally do pass over, that in the midst of storm there are circles of calm.
So here it is again: a blessed, perhaps even holy, lull. The calm I experience feels like spring, something fresh and still, like a mountain pool at dawn. I reach this place often in worship, but it abides—God’s Walden—the other six days of the week, though often tantalizingly out of reach. Now and then, however, to my surprise and relief, I really do rest beside still waters. It’s a safe place, ethically speaking. I am at my most generous when I am here and for the time wish no one harm. The waters of this place seem to me to enjoy some direct underground connection with God, some access to the peace beyond all understanding. From this place I move with measured, precise gestures, achieving what I can through the most mundane of tasks to further the Peaceable Kingdom. I counsel a student, I feed the cat, I send another $50 to a worthy cause; and I am, generally speaking, better company, for others as well as myself.
To be cheerful while bombs are falling, serene while children are dying, seems almost a sacrilege; but this is not anesthesia, it’s a gift of peace, and I’m not such a fool as to reject it on moral grounds.
I also know, however, that this is a calm both after the storm and before it. The eye will pass; the hurricane winds will return. So is the storm my true home and the mountain pond a temporary grace? Or is peace my element and the storm an aberration? I do not know for sure. It seems to me, though, as I explore my rancor under the eye of God, that I must never either lose sight of it or give way to it, if I am ever to do any good.
Perhaps God leads me for a time beside still waters precisely to send me back into the lightning. Or perhaps we really are chronic pain patients, after all. Given our capacity for both destruction and compassion, perhaps such pain is the sentence (or the therapy or the purgation) we undergo for our rebellion. If we accept the pain, without seeking to avenge it, perhaps we draw off some of the poison in the world.
It would mean a lot to know. Since, though, this may never be granted us, there is nothing for it but to take another long breath—and start again.