trigger warning: abuse is mentioned in this article.
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive
Kesha’s album Rainbow, which has finally been released after a four year hiatus by the pop singer, has a plethora of themes worth discussing – whether they are about being an alien dating Godzilla or about the exploration of self love or a rise back from an abusive situation – but for the sake of this post, I want to discuss the first single released from the album, Praying, and how it was an absolute fucking breath of fresh air in what feels like a constantly victim-blaming world.
To anyone who has been following Kesha’s journey, she spent the last few years caught up in the middle of a nasty legal case with her abuser and her record label. Kesha was outspoken with her fans on various forms of social media and honest with her updates. Truly, my heart was breaking for this woman I had never met before, who had little to do with me other than being another human who had survived abuse, who also liked glitter and cats – but I felt a solidarity with her. During the ups and downs of the (very public) trial, I constantly thought to myself that I hoped wherever in the world she was, that pop singer whose music used to be my go-to soundtrack for jumping jacks was doing alright. When her new single, Praying dropped, I was anxious from the title of it. Was this about to be another narrative toward how prayer and forgiveness is the only way to move on?
In 2013 I had my own experience with abuse, and the reactions I met with during my recovery were jarring. Like digging at a scab, well intentioned peers and relatives had commentary to make about forgiveness that hurt far more than they could have hoped to help. One peer told me, casually as we sat around a snack table between classes, that “Well – you need to forgive him, or else you’re just as bad as he is.”
I don’t remember what I said to that, in all honesty. I do remember feeling like I was choking on my own throat muscles. I was overcome with a sharp wave of anger and guilt, simultaneously. How could that be true? I thought – So lack of forgiveness automatically made me as bad as someone who threw me into a glass coffee table? There was no fucking way in hell. Yet, seconds later, I doubted myself and thought – well, I hit him first, well, maybe if I hadn’t done this, hadn’t said that – maybe I am just as bad and I should be a bigger person. It was as if his voice was in my head again, letting me know why I should have stayed, letting me know I was crazy and flawed. That very mentality of ‘you’re just as bad because ___’ is exactly what can motivate people in abusive situations to stay longer. Guilt becomes an Achilles heel, especially in situations of reactive abuse (which I didn’t even realize was an existing concept beyond “Maybe I Am Just An Awful Person!” until it was years after the experience). I had also been encouraged by Christian and Catholic peers to pray for the man who had abused me, that he be happier and heal, that maybe it would help. When I said I didn’t want to, I was met with visible disappointment and implications that I was making a decision to be weak and petty. That frustrated me even more. I barely had energy to keep myself afloat – why would I concentrate my limited resources on keeping my abuser’s stupid-ass ship sailing? Why was I required to actively express sympathy for him or else risk being viewed as someone who maybe was making things up, maybe was just as awful all along? I heard the murmurs, I noticed the glances. Even typing this, years later, that fear creeps up – you’re sounding too aggressive. No one will believe you.
Having “forgive them, forgive them, forgive them” shoved down my throat turned me further away from God or religion in general than I had ever been in my life – and that is probably when I needed a sense of religion or community more than ever.
Kesha’s track Praying obviously approaches the concept of praying for someone who abused you, especially from a cold read of the lyrics. However, listening to the bite in Kesha’s voice when she performs this track, watching her video as she, bedazzled, destroys her surroundings – it is obvious that while she has accepted her situation and “moved on”, she has embraced that she has every right to be angry. The whole track builds toward the lines “Some say in life you’re gonna get what you give / But some things only God can forgive,” which are followed by a high note that feels like a visceral shriek. The catharsis I felt listening to this brought tears to my eyes, and an incredible sense of relief. The song emphasizes, more so even than praying for someone who put you through “hell” and whatever that entails, the hope that they are actively changing and finding peace of their own, rather than schlepping that obligation onto the victim of their violence to be a martyr and pray for them. That is huge.
The trope of “forgive them or you’re just as bad as them and going to be bitter and angry your whole entire life!” is still something I run into on at least a weekly basis. Every now and again someone will share sentiments in Facebook memes (the dull kind that are preachy, not funny) – and I roll my eyes. Just last week, a peer shared a post with the statement “A true artist forgives. A false artist holds grudges.” – as if they were unaware that anger has spawned some of the most memorable artistic movements and songs and writing in history.
A recurring theme in the album Rainbow is the idea of letting go. Folks who preach forgiveness as the only path usually state that without forgiveness, “letting go” is impossible. The thing is, the concept of letting go of a burden has little to do with that. Someone can forgive a person and still hold onto their anger (as I have learned this year in my personal life – I am angry with someone I have forgiven for their involvement in a situation, and while I don’t take out that anger on them because I have realized they did the best they could, I still allow myself the basic human function of feeling that frustration and learning from it) and someone can let go of a person without forgiving them.
I will never forgive the person who abused me. What he did was cruel, unnecessary, and inexcusable; and while I was cruel too, I have accepted my responsibility in my actions in that situation and done everything possible to actively make choices every day to never walk down the same path again. Like Kesha, who is obviously nowhere near absolving her abuser with her well wishes, states that she “Hopes you find your peace, falling on your knees,” – I hope he is changing as a person in that same way so that he won’t put someone else through what he did to me, and the girl before me, and probably the girl right after me (at that point I removed myself from the narrative, but I hope she figured her stuff out). Yet, while I haven’t forgiven him, I don’t feel the weight of fury or the situation often, and I think about it less and less as time goes on. I let it go a long time ago – that person is a phantom with no more power over me, even if PTSD leads to occasional discomfort.
So, if you are an abuse survivor – Know that you don’t need to forgive an abuser to “Be the better person.” Chances are, you already ARE the better person.
And if you have a loved one who has gone through an abuse situation – don’t lay on them the expectation that anything about the anger they are feeling is invalid or unholy. Think carefully about what you say and what it might imply. Chances are, that loved one is already fighting a brutal battle inside about whether or not they are to blame for what they went through, and I can say from experience that having a supportive hand to hold during that time is a lot more helpful than a pre-canned statement about how “they still have power over you if you don’t forgive them” or “forgiveness is freedom” or “you can never love if you can’t forgive.” Sometimes, the most powerful act of love is to learn to love oneself again and, like Kesha at the end of the video for Praying, start taking steps forward without forgetting where you came from.
Kesha sings, “I’m proud of who I am.”
I’m glad to see her doing so well, and lately, I’m proud of who I am, too.