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The Secret Chord: The Complex, Heroic Act of Forgiveness

October 17, 2021 | by Rabbi Adam Jacobs

An exploration of the process of forgiveness, through the prism of music and Jewish wisdom.

Forgiveness is a complicated thing. Some people excel at it, but for most of us it’s a struggle. How many times has it happened that we just couldn't muster the courage to admit any wrongdoing (though we knew we were wrong). How often have we refused to forgive – even in the face of a sincere attempt at reconciliation?

What strange mechanism dwells in our hearts that goads us to do that which is clearly inimical to our own wellbeing? And what can be done about it?

Given that art imitates life, the world of music has done its fair share of exploration of this topic and has many important lessons to offer. There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that says, “Jealousy, lust and honor-seeking remove a person from the world” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:28). This means that those who are caught up in these particularly potent emotional states lose their tethering to normative reality and come to see the world through a tainted prism. That's when poor decisions get made, nasty words get said and potentially irrevocable damage occurs.

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

By and large people who are feeling positive about their lives don’t feel a desire to hurt anyone. It’s only when doubts arise if those around us really care and insecurities about who we are and how “well” we are doing begin to gnaw at us that we begin to veer off course. What is the correct course of action post facto? Admit and apologize – two of the hardest (but most admirable) things we ever have to do.

John Lennon bravely owned up to the pain he caused his wife Yoko at the stressful time when the Beatles were breaking up:

I was feeling insecure
You might not love me anymore
I was shivering inside
I was shivering inside

I didn’t mean to hurt you
I’m sorry that I made you cry
Oh no, I didn’t want to hurt you
I’m just a jealous guy

In addition to admitting your mistakes and apologizing for them, a critical part of the clean up process is taking responsibility for what’s been done and to pledge to end the offending behavior. We also need to try and undo whatever damage has been done – whether to others, or even yourself.

Oftentimes, the acidic pain we mete out internally is far worse than whatever our external enemies can even conceive.

Oftentimes, the acidic pain we mete out internally is far worse than whatever our external enemies can even conceive. It’s a darkly fascinating fact that no other creature attacks itself save one. But, thankfully, we can undo the damage.

“World Leader Pretend” was written by singer Michael Stipe of REM as a tribute to Leonard Cohen and employs military terms to describe this battle within and the critical need to wrest control away from and triumph over our dark sides.

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
I know the barricades and I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I’ve used them well

This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall, and I will be the one to knock it down

Is there a line which once crossed makes forgiveness impossible? How about in a case of child abuse? Many adult survivors of this horrible scourge struggle in incredible turmoil over it – wanting to move on but not finding the space within themselves to pardon the person they most needed for love and protection.

This is the theme of “Oh Father,” which I consider to be Madonna’s best and most moving song. It was written shortly after the death of her mother and when released was accompanied by a heart-wrenching video depicting young Madonna and her very angry father.

It’s funny that way
You can get used to the tears and the pain
What a child will believe
You never loved me

You can’t hurt me now
I got away from you
I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry
You once had the power
I never felt so good about myself

There’s not a lot of forgiveness there. Should there be? Once wronged, how many of us truly let it go with a full heart? That takes enormous character and bravery. Yes, there can be an incredible catharsis when someone who has carried a weight for so long finally puts it down. But for many the best they can do is to try to feel sorry for the one who hurt them in place of anger – and truthfully, that is a great achievement in and of itself. Madonna seems to come to this in the bridge of the song:

Maybe someday,
When I look back, I’ll be able to say
You didn’t mean to be cruel
Somebody hurt you too

Like the Khaled Hosseini quote above, there is no “fanfare of epiphany” here. There is a sober and honest assessment of what’s possible given the history of the people involved and the scope of the pain that was inflicted. Should we feel bad for not being equipped in our present state to pardon certain individuals? I don’t think so. Is that something to strive for? Absolutely. In the interim, taking any steps in that direction should be considered a victory, and sometimes those steps have to be backwards at first in order to be forwards later.

Brandi Carlile noted this phenomenon in her song “Harder to Forgive” when she said:

Yes, my life has seen some wasted time
I have suffered for the peace inside my mind
And some things are better left unsaid
While some things work out different when they’re in your head

She concludes in the chorus that:

Sometimes I pretend, we never met
Because it’s harder to forgive, than to forget

Yep. And though it’s hard, it’s also good, even if it’s only aspirational right now. I appreciate Brandi’s honesty here but I think she hints at her ultimate feelings on forgiveness in the title of her album – “By the Way I Forgive You.”

To hear the Podcast Version of this article (including the songs) click here.

Photo Credit: Danie Franco,

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