Tragedy and Forgiveness | This Week in South Carolina

Clemson University Psychology Professor Robin Kowalski joins Gavin Jackson to discuss her research regarding how people deal with tragedy. And motivational speaker and son of Sharonda Singleton who was murdered during the Mother Emanuel massacre, Chris Singleton, talks about forgiveness.

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Gavin Jackson: Welcome to This Week in South Carolina. I'm Gavin Jackson. With a rise in violence throughout the country. We sit down with Clemson University psychology professor, Dr. Robin Kowalski to discuss her research on dealing with the aftermath of these events. One such event was the tragedy at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, we sit down with Chris Singleton, who lost his mother Sharonda, who was one of the nine that was brutally murdered in that massacre. And we talked to him about how to overcome grief and find forgiveness. Chris, thanks for joining me. 

Chris Singleton: Absolutely, man, thank you for having me.

Gavin Jackson: So you're currently in the middle of your Black History Month reading tour that's taking you across the country. Tell us about your message of tolerance, forgiveness and love that you're spreading right now. 

Chris Singleton: Absolutely, during Black History Month, I think it's important that you know, everybody celebrates. And so the mission that I have of unity is pretty, it's pretty universal. So it's been really cool. Man Toys for Tots has partnered up with me, and we've had a great impact so far, but we're not done yet.

Gavin Jackson: So we talked about this message of forgiveness and tolerance. What are you specifically saying to kids out there? What are you trying to break through and kind of get them to understand? 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, I think what the younger kids man, it's okay to say sorry, it's okay to you know, mess up. And it's okay to ask for forgiveness, or, you know, give forgiveness. And I think at a young age, sometimes we think we do something wrong, it's the end of the world. And that shouldn't always be the case. So just teaching that as I'm on the road has been something I've tried to highlight. 

Gavin Jackson: And when it comes to maybe spreading that message to like adults, as well, talk to us about maybe breaking through to folks and getting that message to them as well. 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, that message is something that I used to have trouble sharing, because I'm so young. But now I understand, it's that everybody has a story. And we don't know what their story is. So we can't judge people without knowing the full background of every individual that we come into contact with. 

Gavin Jackson: You know, everyone does have a story. And sometimes we don't realize that we maybe pop off on people or say things we shouldn't say. And then you realize that they have some background there as well. And when we talk about backgrounds, we talked about the tragedy that happened at Mother Emanuel AME. Church back in 2015, where your mother was killed. She was one of the nine that died there that day. Tell us about your specific journey to forgiveness, and how you've experienced it. 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, for me, personally, I know of something out of this world that plays forgiveness in my heart. And it really in our community, I feel like it was placed, placed on us, it wasn't something that I tried to, you know, had the 10 steps to doing it, or whatever it may be. But now I've realized the power of forgiveness. And I'm trying to make that practical for others. After receiving that blessing myself. 

Gavin Jackson: How did you get to that point? Of course, I mean, it seems like, you know, everyone was just so shocked by the atrocities that happened that day. And then to kind of get to this point to be so mature and just forgive. I think a lot of people still can't really comprehend that. 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, I think it's important that we forgive, but it's impossible to forget. And for me, personally, I think that I figured out what's on the other side of forgiveness, right on the other side of forgiveness, I don't have to hate all people that don't look like me. On the other side of forgiveness, I can be a great father, a great husband, and not continue to struggle with the PTSD that I had. So there's there's tangible things on the other side of forgiveness, and then saying, you know, I forgive my mother's killer for doing what he did, and to my church family, saying that orally, it also puts makes it real for me as well. So there's different steps that I took. But knowing what's on the other side was the reward was definitely the most important thing. 

Gavin Jackson: What's your advice to folks that are struggling with maybe doing what you've done? Or who are in the middle of grief right now or experiencing tragedy? 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, I think we've got to have a way to honor the people that we lost. If you're grieving, whether it's, you know, a person that you they lost a certain type of cancer, maybe go run a 5k in their honor. Or maybe you cook that recipe that, you know, they they couldn't always get, right, but you're going to get it right for them. So there's different ways that we can honor our loved ones that have been lost. But also, if you're struggling with forgiveness, you have to sit down and tell yourself, okay, if I do forgive, will it actually help me because in our minds, we think that we're setting somebody else free. But there's a quote that says forgiveness is setting a prisoner free only to later realize that you yourself are the prisoner. So we have to figure out what it will set us free from and that'll give us the motivation even want to start that journey. 

Gavin Jackson: Can you apply that to other things, maybe in the past, too, that people maybe deal with? I mean, we talked about Black History Month, we know it's a very difficult time in the history when it comes to African Americans in our country. Obviously not so easy to just writ large forgive for some of those past sins, but how do you see black history? How do you deal with that and maybe what's your advice to folks who are trying to understand that journey? 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, I think we live in the greatest country in the world if he asked me but you know, we have some, some, some, some rough have history and so forgiveness isn't saying that everything that happened is all peachy keen. But forgiveness is saying, hey, I want to move forward. And I looked at this month as a way to celebrate all the amazing black heroes that have come before me. I knew I wouldn't have the the job, the career the the life that I have without people like Malcolm X, Dr. King, Rosa Parks and so many others. I even think about guys like LeBron James, who's the all time leading scorer in NBA history now. And so I think we keep setting the bar higher, and they pass on the baton for people like me, and then I hopefully one day I can pass it along to my son. 

Gavin Jackson: And when we see tragedies in the news, I mean, I'm sure it's triggering to you and so many folks who have been affected by shootings and other horrific incidents across our country. But you know, most recently, the killing of Tyree Nichols in Memphis, the shootings that affected the Asian community in Southern California. How do you cope with these situations? What's your advice to folks who, who keep seeing this over and over again, and just think that they can't bear it anymore? Even if they're just indirectly affected by this? 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, it me personally, man, I watch every single video, I'm a person that I want to see how in the world this is happening. I want to see the details of it. Because I can't fathom it. It doesn't make sense to me. And so I never want to be desensitized to what crazy stuff happens in the world. And I'd advise people to also feel that same way. Right? If wrong is wrong, let's continue to say that is wrong. And not let's not just say, you know, another terrible thing has happened. But let's actually feel that. If we have to shed tears, let's shed tears, let's not pretend like this is just normal, because it's not normal. When we see things like what happened with Tyre Nichols, or what happened in California, and what continues to happen in our world, we need to continue to to convey that that's wrong. 

Gavin Jackson: And you talk about unity, talk about loving your neighbor, these are just, you know, qualities that we should all embrace. Obviously, the golden rule, I think, is probably the best rule for all of us to follow just to have a happy and respectful life. But when we see such a hyper polarized world, such a hyper partisan world too. What keeps you going, what, what do you have to keep doing to break through and hopefully get your message to stick to some folks? 

Chris Singleton: Yeah, I think one of the things is key for me is that I kind of stay out of politics, because you always have to pick a side when you when you play politics. And so that's probably one reason why I'll never run for anything, but I don't know what God has in store for me. But that's one way that I kind of stay out of it. Most people don't always believe one side or the other, right? We're beautiful human beings that are diverse and thought diverse in culture. And so none of us really feel all the way this way or all the way that way. But the society makes us want to choose. And so for me, I kind of break down the fact that, you know, none of us truly think all one way or the other. And I put it into stories that's, you know, try to talk in stories just like the most famous man that ever walked this earth, Jesus kind of spoke in parables. So I try to do it in a way that people can relate. And I've seen good things happen from that. 

Gavin Jackson: I was gonna ask you just how when we talk about division, you know, we always think about the Thanksgiving dinner table. Obviously, it's January, February right now. But what's your advice for folks who are maybe trying to break through to another side? Or, you know, you're in an argument with someone and everyone's always dug in on their own sides? Do you try it? Have you been able to be successful in breaking through to some folks and maybe sharing your perspective on something? And if so, what's that? How do you do that? 

Chris Singleton: Absolutely. I think first we need to listen to understand, in this culture that we're in today, we listen to tell somebody where they're wrong. And we can't wait to jump down somebody's throat. Right, there could be 15 or 20% truth to what somebody is saying with with hard facts. And you know, a little bit of it is all for if. We don't agree with a small portion of it. We're ready to jump at somebody. And so for me, I stop and I listen to somebody else's story, their perspective, because I don't, I don't haven't lived the life that they have. And so if that's the case, then listening to somebody else, listening before we speak is important. But also at the end of the day. Unfortunately, some people have been taught wrong for decades. And so it may take a little while for you to pierce their heart and get them to love people, regardless of where they're from what they look like. 

Gavin Jackson: Yeah, listening is definitely key to a lot of a lot of solving a lot of our problems out there too. And that's why we're here talking to you. Chris Singleton, thank you so much for joining us. It's Chris Singleton. He's a former professional baseball player turned author turned motivational speaker. Thanks again. 

Chris Singleton: Absolutely. 

Gavin Jackson: Dr. Robin Kowalski is a psychology professor at the Clemson University and she joins us now to talk about mental health school shootings and her research as well as much more. Dr. Kowalski, thanks for joining us. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Thanks so much for having me. 

Gavin Jackson: So I want to start off broadly and ask about mental health awareness. It's a term we keep hearing a lot about. It seems to be more prevalent in society now. It seems to be D stigmatized as well. We talked about mental health treatments, which is probably a big step forward for folks in your field. Do you feel like we are seeing some changes in how people and policymakers approach mental health and treatment these days? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: You know, I think there has been increased attention to it. And I think the increased attention is helping with the D stigmatization. But I think, you know, I think the D stigmatization is more on the global level rather than, than the individual level. So, you know, yes, I think we're making progress. But I think we have a long way to go toward improving mental health awareness. 

Gavin Jackson: And why do you think we're finally getting this attention? Do you think it's because of tragedies? Because it's horrible shootings? And we always seem to blame mental health? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yeah, that's a great question. I certainly think that that's contributing to it. You know, we have so much increased media attention over the last few years, and particularly with school shootings and other like you said, national tragedies. And I think when things like that arise, you know, the risk, of course, is that there's a situation factor that occurs. But I think the positive upside, if you can say that there is one is that I think it does make us more aware, I think people start, you know, doing more research and what can be causing this? So I think that that has has led to just that increased scrutiny into the causes of it, and therefore, increased attention into what we can do about what we perceive as causes or correlates of the different tragedies. 

Gavin Jackson: So not so much as a scapegoat as much as maybe just more attention. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Absolutely. Because, you know, like, you know, with the the school shootings, for example, you know, we know that there are certain antecedent conditions that are not meant to, you know, at least based on the research that we've done, and some other people have done, and those antecedent conditions are never meant to profile. You know, there's plenty of people who have mental health issues, obviously, who don't go on become school shooters, you know, we know that rejection is a key antecedent condition of people who are involved in school shootings. But there's plenty of people, for example, who are bullied, who don't go on to become school shooters. But I think what we can take away from that is, you know, if we know that these antecedent conditions exist, then we can implement programs, mental health awareness programs, anti bullying programs or bullying prevention programs is probably the more appropriate term that will, you know, decrease the likelihood that people who might have gone on to, to perpetrate school shootings, that we can decrease the probability that that would occur. 

Gavin Jackson: Dr. Kowalski, your research focuses on complaining teasing and bullying, like you're talking about, and also a focus on cyber bullying, cyber bullying, as well as the concept of mattering in relation to school shootings. So we've talked about all these. But let's start with school shootings and shooters, you were just mentioning that there's not really profile for a school shooter. That seems like it could be anyone I guess. And that is a bit worrisome in itself, too. But we haven't seen many school shootings in South Carolina. The last one, I think that was really on our radar was that 2016 shooting at Townville Elementary School, which claimed the life of Jacob Hall. So but there's always, you know, doesn't really go a week doesn't really go by in South Carolina, where a parent isn't getting a message from a son or daughter saying we're on lock down at school, which I can imagine what that sends to a parent's mind at that point. So talk to us about school shooters. And you know, typically how they get to that point where they see that as the only way out. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: So, so let me expand upon those sort of antecedent variables I mentioned before. So you know, back several years ago, we did some research looking at the shootings had to it was K through 12 shootings, and they had to meet certain criteria, like the shooting had to occur at school during the school day. So things that happened at football games, or, you know, other sporting events didn't didn't meet our criteria. And there were five, again, I'm just gonna call them correlates or antecedent conditions. And, you know, one was a long term history projection, like the, the bullying and other one was the history of psychological problems. Another one was an acute rejection experience. You know, most of the K through 12 shooters are male, and most of them are white males. And you know, we can talk about that later if you want to. There's also a fascination with death and a fascination with guns and violence. So many of these shooters are fascinated with prior shooters and prior school shootings that have taken place. So, you know, we found at that time this was the study was published in 2003. So this was some time ago, we found that there were 15 shootings that met our criteria. So more recently, though, just a few years ago, we wanted to see, you know, if the same correlates held up, and, and they did, and there were the number of shootings that met our criteria was a longer time span, of course, was much higher was in the 50s. And again, you're there's been lots more school shootings that have taken place, but we had a very narrow set of criteria that have have occurred since that time. But I think to your to your point, given that we have the this relatively high prevalence of shootings that have occurred, you know, like I mentioned, we can implement anti bullying, Prevention Prevention Programs. But, you know, you mentioned mattering earlier mattering is a fairly recent psychological phenomenon thats fascinating. And, you know, I was talking to one of my friends yesterday about the construct of mattering, and her comment was, because I just think mattering is related to everything. 

Gavin Jackson: Can you define that? Can you tell us what that is? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yes, I can. And I don't disagree with her. Mattering is, it's the degree to which we feel important or significant, or the degree to which we make other people feel like they're important or significant. And the converse of it is that people who, who feel like they don't matter, they feel like they're invisible. And so you know, that, think about what that would feel like, you know, that would not feel good to feel like that you are invisible to others. And you can imagine that people who feel like they are rejected or feel like they don't belong, you know, that means that they feel like they don't matter. And we've recently done a study looking at suicide post in the, in one of the subreddits on Reddit, obviously. And we found that over 70% of those post anti mattering was present, which again, you know, that I think that speaks to the, to the realness and the prevalence of this construct of mattering. And, you know, people's day to day lives. And so I think what, what comes out of that is, to the degree that we can make people feel like they are important, that they are significant that they belong, that they matter, I think we can help to reduce. Speaking to the school shootings, in particular, I think we can reduce the shootings, you know, people who feel marginalized feel like they don't matter. And it honestly takes so little to make somebody feel like they matter or, you know, just a kind word, or why don't you sit with us for lunch? Or, you know, it really does not take a lot of effort. And so to the degree that any of us can just reach out at whatever level elementary school, middle school, high school and beyond, you know, and we we believe the same thing applies. You mentioned cyber bullying, you know, it really my friend was right, it really does. 

Gavin Jackson: It seems like it's such a root situation here we talk about mattering, and letting someone be recognized and seen. I mean, I know we're talking about mental health issues, too. I'm sure that's a compounding factor. But I feel like you can just get to, you know, just a simple step here in terms of getting people involved or, or pay attention to more folks, whether that's a teacher or a parent, or even a manager or a boss or something like that, and it kind of absolutely get around all these issues. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it really knows no limits, nor does it know a specific situation. It applies across the board across ages. It's, it's limitless.

Gavin Jackson: So it's something that we can all maybe take away and work better at. But when we talked about... go ahead. 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yeah, no, I was just gonna say, I'm gonna agree with you. 

Gavin Jackson: Simple things. But we've seen the governor, Governor McMaster talk about, you know, making a big push for school resource officers. We've talked about school safety, we talked about school shootings, there's about I know, he's still What's up about $27 million towards that effort. But there's also a study he commissioned last year, which was to look at mental health counselors in schools too and right now as it was about one counselor for every 1300 students in the state, which is pretty jarring. And I know there's a lot of money, that it's in his budget right now to be put towards addressing that matter, whether it's recruiting and retaining professionals at Department Mental Health , and also deal with a lot of services that have been under funded. So would you do you? Do you feel like that will fix the problem? I know, we just talked about mattering. Seems like that's a pretty big root cause for things but our SRO's are counselors, are they just I guess complements to to this overall problem? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: I think that's an excellent way of putting up the their compliments to it. You know, I think the statistics are pretty staggering, in terms of, you know, so few counselors for so many young people. And so I think that, you know, certainly I think we need more counselors. I think we need I do think we need more counselors. When we address the SRO issue, I think we can certainly benefit from having more SRO's. But, you know, there's, there's research to suggest, and I want to be careful how I say this, I think that lock down drills are important. I think that, you know, having school security measures are important. But I also think that we need to really investigate, you know, most of your school shooters come from within the schools. So, you know, to the not not all of them, but most of them. So I think to the degree that you know, we have active shooter drills, for example, you know, while and again, I don't want to say those aren't important they are but they can also instill fear and anxiety in the students and you're also teaching the potential shooter exactly what to or not to do within the shooting thing. So I definitely think schools need SRO's you know how many I think that's something that we need to evaluate how much money needs to be devoted to that, but I definitely think that your I loved your word about complementing, I definitely think school counselors in particular, our mental health counselors can are a nice complement to all the other things like that bullying prevention programs and the mental health awareness that needs to be done 

Gavin Jackson: A complement to solving the problem there. So really quickly, before we move on, Dr. Kowalski, I wanna ask you what your parents what your teachers, maybe even friends in these schools be looking out for you're talking about folks who have been, you know, rejection, there's acute rejection, there's people that feel like they matter. What can people look for? What can they do? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: That's a great question also. So I think one thing that they can look for Are is, is leaking, they call it leakage. It's really disclosure, you know, the vast majority of your school shooters, or potential school shooters talk about it, you know that I create a video or they may say to their friend, don't come to school tomorrow. Okay, well, those are, those are warning signs. And, you know, I think we need to pay attention to those warning signs. And you know, sometimes if your friend comes up to you and says, Hey, don't come to school tomorrow, you know, I'm planning to do X, Y, and Z, you know, you're, there's sort of a lack of credibility there, you have like, No, you're not gonna, we're not really going to do anything, because this is your friend or this is, you know, one of your classmates. And I think we need to encourage young people to pay attention. Even if it is sort of an idle threat, that person is crying out for help. So you were taught about mental health awareness, we need to we need to pay attention to that. 

Gavin Jackson: And when we talk about, you know, your students, you know, you teach these new generations of psychologists to go into the field are more and more of them interested in going into going into some of these schools go into some of these districts that are in need. I mean, obviously, the pay is what it is, it's got to be a difficult uphill battle. To go into this this field. What's what's it like, right now on the ground? When it comes to the students that you teach? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yeah, so, you know, I, honestly, I have a lot, they're very interested in going into the field, you know, the problem that I see is more the requirements to get into the programs, to train them, you know, it's becoming increasingly difficult a lot of the programs are wanting, you know, you know, go and get a couple years experience, and then we'll let you apply to our doctoral programs or our master's programs. Well, how are they going to get the experience, you know, without the without having the advanced degrees and things like that. So that's where I see from my end, where I see the problem. And that has become increasingly difficult in the last five to 10 years, I think we need to do something about that, you know, you've got people who are willing to go into the, you know, to do the work. Let's, let's, let's give them the opportunity to do so. 

Gavin Jackson: Gotcha. And I know you're not complaining there, but it sounds like a complaint. Let's, let's talk about complaining for a minute, because I think we all like to do that. I know I do. But I'd like to be constructive with it. Because there's no real point if you're not, but tell us about your research and complaining, you know, where other benefits? Are there different types of complaining? Tell us a little about this. We have a couple of minutes left? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yeah. So it's such such a fun area to do research in. So because now if you think about it, complaining is a behavior that we all engage in, albeit to different degrees. And I love to dabble in research in areas that, you know, very few people have dabbled in, but yet, it's a behavior that again, like, like I said, that everybody engages in. So, you know, what we believe is that, you know, if done in moderation, and if done strategically, you know, in other words, you're, you're not going to go and just complain all the time, because then you're going to, you know, destroy relationships. And if you do it, you pick your audience carefully, you know, you don't use up the same person over and over again, that complaining can be very effective. You know, and there's plenty of, you know, I think each person, again, who uses it moderation, who does it strategically, can support can find supporting evidence for that. 

Gavin Jackson: You say if you do it strategically, but then you also mentioned destroying relationships. So you're saying if I complain all the time, that's gonna really just what great on people to great on my approach towards people. How does that work? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: It will Yeah, you know, uses people up, it wears on people, if you continue to just complain over and over and over again, without being willing to do anything about it. You know, there's different types of complaining, there's instrumental complaining, there's expressive, complaining, you know, instrumental complaining is complaining that's designed to accomplish a very specific outcome. But you know, if I go to my next door neighbor and complain about, you know, the cable company or something like that, and I do it incessantly, well, you know, she's gonna tire of that, um, you know, I don't know that she would completely ditch me as a friend, but she's eventually going to say, you know, enough, you know, if you're really that dissatisfied with it, go and complain to the company itself. But if it's expressive, complaining, even still, you know, if I'm just chronically just, you know, morose and complaining about this, and that, that also wears on people, because it's like, just, you know, move on, you know, find a way I teach my students about ways to make change their attributional style, because it comes up comes across as this chronic pessimism. And there are ways to deal with it, you can check yourself, you know, you can journal about it, there are ways to deal with your complaining that can be more effective than just continuing to, you know, express it incessantly to other people.

Gavin Jackson: I was gonna say, when it comes to addressing this confrontation work, because when I hear someone complain over and over again, it's like, Okay, enough, like, does that does that work? Does that give that person at least something on their radar to recognize? 

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Yeah, I think you want to, if you want to use confrontation, now you want I think you want to do it constructively, like you want to say, you know, have you suggested or have you tried, you know, journaling? Have you tried doing something else? Have you tried talking to the company directly? I think you want to give them because a lot of those people are number one unaware that they're doing it. There's a he's a he's a former pastor, actually, he has a program through the Complaint Free World and he has people wear these, kind of like the LIVE STRONG bracelets or purple bracelets. And I think the reason the program works is because it makes you aware, you know, when I started doing research on complaining, it was like, it was coming out of the woodwork. It was like, everybody was complaining and I think we become aware of it and just those bracelets have been used in a marriage counseling. Where you know, as soon as you start complaining about your spouse, you have to move it to the other arm. So I think a lot of it is just, it's just increasing our awareness of it. And once you become aware of anything, it's like whoa, you know, I can check the behavior better if I realize that I'm actually engaging in the behavior. So I think by confronting people about it, particularly constructively, you may be making them aware of something that didn't even realize that they were doing to begin with. 

Gavin Jackson: Gotcha. Well, that's some good advice from a lot of research that we've been talking about with Dr. Robin Kowalski. She's Clemson University psychology professor, thanks so much for joining us a lot to think about there.

Dr. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University: Thanks so much for having me so much fun. 

Gavin Jackson: To stay up to date with the latest news throughout the week. Check out the South Carolina Lede. It's a pod cast that I host on Tuesdays and Saturdays that you can find on or wherever you find podcasts for South Carolina ETV . I'm Gavin Jackson. Be well South Carolina.