Like a lot of people, Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt grew up thinking that forgiveness required the actions of two people: 1) the person who hurt you apologizing for what he or she did – and 2) you, who would grant that person forgiveness. But what Katherine came to realize as she got older – and especially during the writing of her New York Times best-selling book “The Gift of Forgiveness: Inspiring Stories From Those Who Have Overcome the Unforgivable” – is that forgiveness is ultimately a gift that you give yourself, regardless of another person’s remorse or lack thereof.
During a recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below), she explained, “I went through phases of feeling like forgiveness is something that weak people do, something that almost makes an action or a wrongdoing okay. It can feel like a betrayal of your own hurt. And then, after doing this book and speaking to all these amazing people, I understand that forgiveness is actually something that requires an incredible amount of strength and courage. It is an example of us taking our power back in control of our own lives.”
In writing “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Katherine interviewed 22 people who endured horrific circumstances or evils. And she shares how they managed to unburden themselves of the anger, hatred, and resentment that was weighing them down. For several of her subjects, religious faith was a key factor in their forgiveness journeys.
Polly Sheppard, for instance, is a survivor of Dylann Roof’s racist murder spree at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel A.M.E. church in 2015. Days after the shootings, Sheppard publicly forgave Roof for what he had done. Katherine notes that decision was rooted in Sheppard’s faith.
She said, “[Sheppard] grew up in a family, in a household, in a world where faith was the main feature in her life. That formed her understanding and her view on forgiveness as being something that you do as a person with faith…I was really interested in talking to her because she obviously experienced a terrible and horrific act…From the beginning, of course, when you go through your phase of feeling anger, or frustration, or loss about what had happened…there was an understandably instant feeling of confusion and anger. But she quickly spoke about getting to a place of forgiveness and also wanting to talk to Dylann Roof about why he chose to do what he did – and also try to get faith [into] his life…So I think that the way that she came to [forgiveness] was a place of having compassion and empathy, but also a clear mission to want to spread the power of faith into other people’s lives, especially Dylann Roof’s life, who clearly she felt did not have that presence.”
Other interview subjects who described the power of faith in their forgiveness journey were Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who struggled with her belief in God before ultimately coming to meet the man who murdered her family and telling him she forgives him – and Ron Hall, who credits his wife’s gift of “Christlike forgiveness” after she discovered his infidelity with putting him on a road that led him to helping the homeless.
Sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive, however, is yourself. That was certainly the case with Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold who was one of the two Columbine High School shooters in 1999 that murdered 12 students and one teacher.
Katherine said, “Sue’s interview was one of the most interesting because it was such a different take on forgiveness than I had ever heard. I tell people to read her section with an open heart and also with compassion and empathy. A lot of times, we hear about shootings and think about the people whose lives have been taken, and their families, and how horrific that must be. We don’t often think about how challenging it must be for the parents of the person who committed that crime, which I think is understandable…Sue was on the receiving end of people coming up to her as complete strangers and saying to her in the grocery store, ‘I forgive you for what your son has done.’ It was interesting to hear that for her, while that’s understandable for people to come and say that to her, that the real struggle she was having at the end of the day was as a mother, not being the mother that her son needed in order to confide in her that he was struggling with mental health issues, and depression, and loneliness. She has to live with that for the rest of her life.”
Katherine’s compassion and empathy for all the people she interviewed are evident in the heartfelt way she speaks about them. And those qualities of compassion and empathy were partially planted in her life by her grandparents, Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Sargent helped found the Peace Corps, which promotes volunteering and bettering the lives of people around the world. And Eunice founded Special Olympics, which was revolutionary in changing the attitudes many people have toward those with intellectual challenges.
Katherine concluded, “My grandparents were huge figures in my life when they were here on earth, and still after having passed. I think about them a lot, and also carry parts of them and what they taught me when they were here with me. I think the biggest lesson that they taught me when I was growing up was that our purpose on this earth is to make the world a better place and to help others. And both of them did that with every move that they made, every choice that they made. And they not only decided to create programs and organizations to help other people in need, but they also always taught us as their grandchildren, and taught their kids, my mom and my uncles as well, that you can always help others. You could always be of service, and how you choose to do that is up to you. So with my books, and especially with this book on forgiveness, my goal with it is to help other people in their forgiveness journey to spread the message and awareness around forgiveness. Also, if one person reads this book and feels less alone in their journey, then this book will have served its purpose. And if someone reads this book and feels inspired by someone’s story in the book to open their hearts to forgiveness and welcome forgiveness into their lives, then this book will have served its purpose.”
(To listen to my full interview with Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt, click on the podcast link):