These days we have a myriad of streaming services, but a long time ago, in Ancient Greece, people had epic poetry. Since people were generally illiterate, there were performers who knew these poems by heart that sang or recited them. Many of these poems must be lost forever, but some of them had so much staying power that they were written down when writing things down was costly and difficult. One of these poems is the Iliad, and the first word of the poem in its original Greek tells you what the poem is about: anger.
It’s a bit willful of me to start off talking about an ancient Greek poem. But I’ve always believed that ancient works of literature tell us something fundamental about the experience of being human. That’s at least part of the reason why they survived for so long and why some people still love to think and talk about them. The Iliad in particular has been on my mind lately because I’ve noticed, in my attempts to be present in Hamilton as a NeighbourhoodMissioner, that the people I come across are often very angry.
I see the anger in different ways. A common way people seem to be coping with their anger is with humour. Sometimes the humour is gentle and self-deprecating, but other times it’s sharp and pointed outward. One of the oddest forms of anger presenting itself as humour that I see very often is the way people use the Ha-ha reaction on Facebook comments in that ironic way that says: “What you’ve said is so wrong that all I can do is laugh at you.”
A less common but more direct way people cope with their anger is with aggression. I’ve seen people yelling at those in retail or customer service over the smallest things. I’ve heard people gossip in the most vehement terms about people who are supposed to be friends. I am not immune to the spirit of anger that seems to have come over the world, and I find myself getting heated on an online forum called Reddit, arguing with strangers on the internet.
As someone trying to form relationships with people of peace in the neighbourhood this overwhelming anger that seems to be inside just about everybody is a real barrier. The atmosphere of anger creates an atmosphere of fear. No one seems to know when the next minor explosion will happen. No one seems to know when they will be the target of ridicule or shame. Everyone is angry, and no one is safe. It keeps people from being able to be themselves. It’s difficult to be in relationship with people who are constantly hiding who they are. But I can’t blame them—it’s a safety issue. Jesus meets us only where we are, yet we are all too angry and too afraid to be in the here and now that we are in.
The anger in the Iliad is specifically the anger of Achilles. I hate to do disservice to the text, but I will try to summarize to the best of my abilities for the sake of this article. Achilles is the great warrior of the Achaeans, who are attacking the Trojans. He becomes angry, initially because what is his has been taken away from him. In his anger, he refuses to fight, and this turns the tides of the war against the Achaeans. His dear friend Patroclus cannot bear to witness such a loss, so he convinces Achilles to let him go to battle wearing Achilles’s armor, so that the soldiers will be encouraged by seeing their top warrior return. Patroclus is killed in battle by Hector, and Achilles’s anger burns even hotter. Achilles kills Hector and drags Hector’s corpse around the city. This gruesome revenge does not make his rage go away.
What finally allows Achilles’s anger to resolve is Hector’s father, King Priam, coming to Achilles himself despite knowing that Achilles might kill him too. Priamkisses Achilles’s hands and pours out his grief over Hector’s and his many sons’ deaths at the hands of Achilles. He asks Achilles to think of his own father, and weeps at Achilles’s feet. Achilles then begins to weep too. The great poet then sings: “When Achilles was now sated with grief and had unburdened the bitterness of his sorrow, he left his seat and raised the old man by the hand, in pity for his white hair and beard.”I’ve dragged you around the city of the great poem the Iliad for this: anger can be sated with grief. To put it another way, anger can only resolve when the grief underneath the anger is recognized and seen. Bitterness is often sorrow, and it needs to be unburdened.
I suspect that so many people are so angry because in fact so many people are grieving. There has been much to grieve. The practical wisdom that the ancient poem of the Iliad can give us here is that it is only in witnessing Priam’s grief that Achilles is able to see his own grief and sate it. One of the things I try to do as a Neighbourhood Missioner is to be the Priam for the Achilles around me. It often feels dangerous to do so, because it always is a risk to be in the here and now, and not only that, to clearly communicate what is here and now. The great wisdom and gift that Priam offers is a self-knowledge about where he is and what he is grieving, and the courage to name that grief through tears. Have we named, even for ourselves, our griefs? How will we help others see their grief if we cannot see our own? And if we cannot see that we are deeply bereft, how will we know to lay that heavy burden at Jesus’s feet? My hope is that we as the Church can walk through our fears and name the things that grieve us, so that our neighbourstoo can be unburdened.