Tony Woodlief | Author

The world we show them

“Which world do you want to live in?”

My oldest son, just days from his 14th birthday, glares back at me. Behind him in the car sit his brothers. Their hands are pressed to their faces. One of them is crying.

Caleb begins to explain why he smacked them. Eli was needling him about something. Isaac, five years younger and half his size, had come over the seat at him with a vengeance when he hit Eli.

Caravaggio - Sette opere di Misericordia
“Which world, Caleb?”


I tell him he is headed into a world where wrongs are repaid with violence. I ask if he wants what comes next, in this world. If I should yank him from the car and smack him.

I don’t tell him what I recalled, as I came to the car where they all waited, as I saw him lean across his seat in rage. It was a moment when he was only two, when he and I sat in a car, waiting on his mother. He had been crying because he wanted something he couldn’t have. He kept crying and crying, working himself into a frenzy.

When he cried that way, it reminded me of his sister during the last days of her brain tumor, crying without end, wailing sometimes until she passed out.

I cannot bear that sound.

See how I make an excuse, even now? An excuse for coming over my seat in a rage, and shouting “Shut up!” in his face, shouting so loud my voice was hoarse later.

We think our sins are our own, but every day, we teach the ones who follow us. Every sin. Every day.

And now here I am, filled with fury at his fury that he learned from me, hearing his little brother cry, wanting nothing more than for him to test me, to try and use his size against the old man and get what he has coming.

How must it be for God, to see we strong strike down the weak, even as we offer up to heaven our justifications? How filled with anger and grief he must be, to see his children prey on one another.

“Which world, son?”

Caleb turns his hardened face to me, and I see in it my own. I ask if he really wants justice poured out on every head, including his.

“No,” he says, if only because he knows it’s the answer I want.

I tell him he can choose a world where every wrong is repaid with violence, or he can choose a world of grace. I don’t know if this penetrates. Words are so very cheap. Perhaps all he will learn from me is what I gave to him a dozen years ago.

I bring his brother’s face close, so he can see the wound, and the hurt behind the wound. He apologizes, because it is what he is supposed to do. His brothers forgive him, because they love him.

Which world will you choose, son? I would choose it for him. I fear sometimes I have. All that is left to me now is to live grace, that he might choose grace. Perhaps because of me. In spite of me.

Which world will they choose, our children? The answer only ever has been this: they will choose the world we show them.

On Key

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