“Forgiveness is not a final act, it is a way of being.” I wanted to start with that quote from Shawne Duperon (dew-PEAR-en), the film maker behind Project Forgive, because it so powerfully explodes one of the greatest myths of forgiveness: that it's a “one and done” type of act. I think for me and many others, true forgiveness seems like a super power we do not possess, the ability to simply let go of hurt and anger and never bring it to mind again. But as Shawne and I spoke for this interview, that quote was the “aha” moment for me. Forgiveness is not a final act; rather it is something we approach again and again each day until it becomes a way of being.
But, let's back up. Shawne is a six-time EMMY®-Award-winning producer, PBS host, networking guru and media expert, a PhD candidate in interpersonal communication (gossip theory), and an expert in the positive aspects of gossip: how it impacts culture, the workplace, media and personal lives. So given her background it makes sense that her response to standing in the gap of an unimaginable tragedy was to turn that pain into a message to share with others.
A few years ago a family friend of Shawne's, a man named Gary Weinstein, received news that his wife Judy and their two sons, twelve-year-old Alex and nine-year-old Sam, were hit by a drunk driver and did not survive. Shawne's children had babysat for Alex and Sam, and Judy had been a business coach for Shawne's husband. As devastating as that was, Shawne soon found out that the drunk driver, who killed Gary's entire family, was another family friend, Tom Wellinger. As Shawne says, “On one hand, Tom is a drunk driver who took a family. On the other, Tom is a loving and kind man who made a horrific mistake. A dilemma and a movie were created in that moment.” And one of the greatest inspirations for Shawne was how Gary approached the process of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable pain. In an interview with WXYZ Channel 7 in Detroit, Michigan, Gary described a meeting he had with Tom about a year after the accident. Gary says, “Tom asked if I could forgive him and I asked if he could forgive himself.” Gary told Tom he had forgiven him. But Gary, who also saw the jewelry store he owned burn down about four months after his family was killed, said that forgiveness was a gift he gave himself. “I decided in that moment that I had to make a choice: I could run from my problems or face them and heal.” Of course Shawne, like all of us, is amazed by Gary's ability to extend compassion to the man who took everything from him. And this lead Shawne, who was wrestling with the pain of Gary's loss combined with her knowledge of Tom as a good and decent man, to her own “aha” moment. Shawne says she soon realized that “the ability to hold two very different perceptions at the same moment is where the breakthroughs lie.”
So it was my pleasure to interview Shawne about the film, forgiveness, compassion and how gossip isn't entirely a bad thing. Shawn is a lively and engaging woman who doesn't hold back. “I'm an incest survivor and I know a lot about forgiveness,” she says. And “grieving my losses and going through this experience, I want to say helped me on my journey. I mean, I don't think this journey is ever done, done.” But it wasn't just her background that set her on this journey. She says, “Being put in the position of the serendipity of knowing what happened to Gary and knowing both sides also created another level of conversation that the world has been waiting for.” Shawne says she feels that people are ready to have this conversation about the complexity of forgiveness. So as part of the project to develop Gary's story into a movie she set up a successful KickStarter project and solicited stories of forgiveness from the public. “We get about 3,000 e-mails a day. I mean, it's crazy fun and at the height of the KickStarter we were getting like 20,000 a day.”
I told Shawne that my biggest problem with forgiveness, and I think a lot of people feel the same, is that forgiveness feels like giving someone a free pass. “Forgiveness is as complex as each person is different. There are stages: shock, denial, anger, grief, solutions and peace.” But here is the big statement, Shawne and many experts say: it is not a linear process. “There are times it comes back. Where people mostly get stuck is in anger. But anger is not bad. When someone is still angry there is usually grief. And we must grieve and that's why the crux of Gary's story is so important and why you cannot stay stuck. Gary can honestly say he has forgiven the guy who killed his family. But does that mean with June coming up when Sammy would be graduating from high school, it moves me to say that, does it mean he's not going to get angry again at Tom for taking away his opportunity to see Sammy graduate?” Shawne says it doesn't mean that, because forgiveness is much more complex. But, “if you stay in the anger place you begin to suffer and suffering and grieving are so different.” Shawne says it takes a spiritual maturity to navigate the complexity. “If I didn't know Tom, who killed Gary's family, I would hate him, right? But I know him and the person he is and I know Gary so it forced me to see the complexity.”.. More
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