“Did I go on a tangent?
Did I lie through my teeth?
Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?
Did I bring shame on my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
Whatever you see, that wasn’t me.”
The song begins with a haunting hook, repeats the refrain, “Whatever you see, that wasn’t me.” It’s a denial heard time and again. From men who harass, “Whatever you saw, that wasn’t my intention.” From those struggling with addiction, “Whatever you see, I could give this up tomorrow if I wanted to.” From the ones who dash hopes and frustrate expectations, “Whatever you see, this wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t me.” When I first heard the jagged edges of Brandi Carlile’s voice singing this bittersweet lullaby, it satiated something deep within. That self-righteous need to be blameless. The lust, perhaps, for outrage. It felt like tapping the human vein of lament, because sometimes people we love let us down. And it hurts. Sometimes it’s like the whole world conspires to poke and prod at the bare soul, and we just can’t take one more trespass against us.
But then the song circles back on itself, and the chorus changes.
"Do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet?
When you fall, I will get you on your feet.
Do I spend time with my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
When that’s what you see, that will be me."
I had a driveway moment with that lyric, flipping the ignition, arrested by the twist. What if the perpetrator of harm actually harms themselves the most? What if we can’t cause another’s pain without deeply damaging ourselves? What if the one trapped in the prison of their own making longs to get free, but just can’t figure a way out? What if it’s not really about me?
There’s a malaise in these times whose cure is forgiveness. Our hunger to make peace within and without, to blaze a path through the avalanche of outrage, to wrestle a blessing from these weary years has bled into our music, literature, and art. This week on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show, John Chambers announced a call to artists in Washington D.C. to produce work for a fall show entitled “Forgive US” addressing atrocities committed by the United States across the globe. Chambers believes that through art, we can open our eyes to hidden histories so that we don’t repeat them. Indeed, forgiveness—whether we seek or grant it—traces a line from the head through the heart, and ultimately lands in the body; in the artistic expression of the hands, a prayer falling from the lips, a grounded calm in the belly, arms open once again to embrace.
Brandi Carlile’s Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You offers a treatise on forgiveness in its many forms. Carlile calls forgiveness “a radical, ugly, and difficult process out of which great beauty comes.” In the run-up to its release, the artist posted an open letter to the Baptist pastor who refused to baptize her as a teen at the eleventh hour, despite her faithful preparation and the family and friends gathered to bear witness. He just couldn’t go through with the baptism, he said, because she was gay. “I don’t believe you did it to humiliate me,” she wrote. “I think you struggled with the decision and simply ran out of time.” We learn about forgiveness when we witness how others do it.
Carlile describes singing as a meditation. “The lump in my throat is a song,” she says. “Right now refugees put a lump in my throat, my little baby, the one on the way, my family and feeling like it’s under attack because I’m gay and married to a woman who’s not a U.S. citizen…those things put a lump in my throat, and I’ve got to sort that out, or I’m going to get cancer. I’ve got to write these songs because there’s really no other way to get rid of it.” The singer will sing, the prayer will pray, the writer will write, the runner will run, each to sort out our own lumps. Because bitterness is a poison pill, and its burden exhausts even the strong-backed.
Sometimes, rather than picking up the guitar or pen, we prefer to zone out, binge-watching. Or numb out with the help of something strong. We stall forgiveness, because it is too demanding an act. We’re faced with the prospects of cheap forgiveness at every turn. When can we get back to laughing at our comedians, watching our formerly favorite actors, listening to the music of those charged with sexual assault? Cheap forgiveness. Why won’t this black child forgive the white woman who falsely accused him of harassment? Cheap forgiveness. When will the grown gay child of a Trump voter get over it already? Cheap forgiveness. How do we create space for costly forgiveness and all it requires—righteous anger, collective lament, tabulating the terms of repair?
Forgiveness, no matter what you’ve done or what’s been done to you, is worthy of patient pursuit. In the coming weeks, I invite you into this exploration of personal and communal forgiveness. Let’s talk forgiveness of enemy, family, and self. Let’s talk forgiveness as both a choice and a spiritual practice. Let us consider the sage voices of our day on this issue—Bishop Desmond Tutu, Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, and Sister Helen Prejean. Let’s explore a criminal justice system bent on retribution rather than reconciliation. As Christians move through the holy season of Lent and approach Good Friday remembrances of Jesus’s execution, we will consider the myth of redemptive violence, and how this myth has resulted in so much harm perpetrated in the name of God. I hope you will follow along, share what resonates, tell me your stories, or comment below.
In the words of poet Jeanne Lohmann, perhaps we will come at last
"to praise grief and the wrongs you never intended.
At the end there may be no answers and only a few very simple questions:
did I Love, finish my task in the world?
Learn at least one of the many names for God?
At the intersections, the boundaries where one life began and another ended,
the jumping-off places between fear and possibility;
at the ragged edges of pain, did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?”
May we catch such a glimpse in the weeks ahead.