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Passing the Pain Along


I had the following experience when working as the only children’s protective services worker in Grays Harbor, Washington, which included the Quinault Reservation.


It forever changed the way I saw people and provided the foundation for the work and learnings that came after.


I was sitting in a small living room dominated by a large overstuffed chair.  The chair was occupied by the father of the family and he was not happy to see me.  I was there to investigate a complaint of physical abuse against his young son.  The complaint noted a large bruise on the boy’s back that didn’t seem likely to have been the result of an accident.


The dad told me that the boy was supposed to be carrying firewood into the house and stacking it, that he was too slow, and in his anger, he threw a piece at the boy and hit him on the back.  He went on to say that it was the way his dad treated him and that it had made a man of him.


In the middle of the father’s diatribe, his little boy walked over to him and held up his arms, a request to be held, comforted, and loved.  Focused on what he was saying to me, he automatically reached down and began to lift up his son.  In the middle of this action, something happened that I’ll never forget.  For a split second, the father’s face was contorted with agony.  Instantly, he threw the child to the floor, cursed, and shouted “Can’t you see I’m talking with this man!”  I looked down at the child and saw the exact same expression on the child’s face I’d seen on the father.  I don’t remember much about the rest of the visit.  I had just witnessed the ancient process of passing the pain down through the generations.  


I’m convinced that, had the father embraced the child at that moment, his own pain from his father would have overwhelmed him. Instead, he reacted and passed it on to his son.  I felt the weight of a great wave of pain passing down through the generations.  It was clear that it was not personal, not really about the father or the son.  It was just “the pain.”


One impact it had on me was to be the catalyst for forgiving my father for the abuse he passed on to me and my mother. The more I learned about his childhood, the more I understood that he had passed on to me less than he himself had received.


The choice faces us each day.  When the pain arises within us, we can either stop and feel it or pass it along.  In a very real way, we, like Christ, are called to bear in our own bodies the suffering of the generations.  It is an act of love.               

Aberdeen, WA 1972


Years later, I woke up one morning, set up and wrote the following…


The Pain of The Sons


The x-ray reveals the badly healed bones of the child, broken by the hard hands of an angry father.  Looking at my x-rays, lost memories stir, bringing a tear for the child I once was.


That child, hidden deep under layers of stone, looks back with mercy on my father’s hidden child, who lived with rage and shame from his too hard father and the mother who brought them disgrace before the world.


How sad that the pain passes from hurt child to hurt child down the long corridor of the generations.


Who will stand and say, “This is enough!” Who will bear the pain of countless generations, refusing to pass it on, a little christ struggling with the sins of the fathers?


William Wise   8/31/99

Comments– 2018:


Looking back on the event, a couple of things come to mind.


First, the relationship between the father & son was not all bad, otherwise the boy would not have approached with upraised arms, expecting to be lifted & held.


Second, my presence in the house, concerned about his behavior and  confronting him over his son’s injuries, increased his stress and likely contributed to his contacting his own wounding and led to his angry response.


Copyright © 2007, 2018 by William Wise.  All Rights Reserved

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