Helen Prejean Just Keep Learning Summary

Sr Helen talks about the Academy Award Film Dead Man Walking and how it was only the very beginning of her career working with inmates on death row. As spiritual support and friend to a number of inmates who have received the death penalty, she has committed her life to helping people understand forgiveness. We talk a lot about philosophy, death row and taking a learning stance as the number one solution.

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Episode Notes

Helen tells the story of how she first became involved in working with inmates on death row. She lets us hear how she got to know her first few clients and how tough it was. At times Helen chokes up thinking about the things she witnessed in her career that brought her to work with many people she would get to know quite well and then have to watch them be put to death in the electric chair.

Her experiences on death row lead her to a life mission of trying to abolish the death penalty. It’s the old adage that while the crimes people commit are horrendous, two wrongs don’t make a right. Furthermore, there is a deep layer of systemic racism, poverty and mental illness that creates a socio-economic link to those who are likely to end up on death row.

The fact the death penalty was such a hot topic, combined with her personal experience, Sister Helen knew it was part of her mission to write a book in order to educate the public. Dead Man Walking was not only a best selling book, but it also went on to become an academy award winning film, and popular theater play.

Helen is a great role model for creating deep, intrinsic meaning in your work. She has been working tirelessly since the 1980’s toward educating people about murder, the death penalty and compassion. 

She speaks openly in the episode about her struggles while doing this line of work and shares that the most challenging hurdle was figuring out how to support victim’s families. While it has been a lifelong seesaw, with many conflicts, no one could argue that she has done absolutely incredible work to remind all of us how we should strive to live our best lives.

Sister Helen is an incredible storyteller, inspirational speaker and teacher. While we spent the majority of the time discussing death row and what it takes to have compassion for someone who has committed such terrible crimes, we also touched on a number of other subjects. We talked about the importance of learning, how to help people regain their lives if they’re given a second chance after jail, and how similar we are, no matter what people see on the outside.

10 Things To Remember About Compassion

  1. We are all 99.9% identical. This connection between people is the secret of life. It is what makes everything hum and come to life.
  2. Empathy is an appreciation for others. You can not be “in their shoes”. You haven’t been through what they’ve been through. You can hear what they’re saying and feel with them. You can walk with them, and go through things with them.
  3. Keep your promises. Most people who require forgiveness in the first place have trouble being trustworthy. Be sure to only make promises that you can keep. Keep your word, show consistency, and do not waiver as you build trust.
  4. Be unconditional in your forgiveness. The root of “forgive” is the Latin word “perdonare,” meaning “to give completely, without reservation”. There is no need to hold back. Hurtful acts and forgiveness are two separate events.
  5. Be patient in waiting for “sorry”. The forgiver chooses when they feel sorry. Everyone heals according to their own timeline. You do not choose when someone forgives you. So be prepared to wait. But you can choose to forgive others and steer toward peace immediately.
  6. Every relationship is mutual. We’re not the wonderful, generous people, forgiving the poor, weak, wounded human beings. They give us a lot too. All human exchanges provide mutual gifts in some way.
  7. Create programs, groups, classes, or partnerships that allow for people to be on a similar playing field. There is so much unlevel ground and unfair advantages in society. Given equal circumstances you would be tested in a way that would lead you to do that too. So level the playing field when you forgive and get to know someone.
  8. Rewards and punishment won’t change the root cause of behavior. We must strive to keep innocent people safe. And, we must hold people accountable. The question is “what does accountability look like?” How do we define accountability? Remember that the wrongdoing is separate from the best course of action for next steps. 
  9. Everyone has a reason, but not an excuse for their behavior. Some may have a learning disability, trauma, addiction, mental illness, poverty, lack of sleep, malnutrition, or immaturity. If your brain’s ability for effective judgment is impaired. It’s impaired, as simple as that.
  10. Give everyone a voice and choice. There is dignity simply in being human. Not because of any results, or circumstances. But, simply in being human we should have input into our lives and decision making.

Memorable Quotes

“Find work and purpose in your life and do what you love. Do what you love. Let what you love be what you do to find purpose and do what you love. Not to try to make a lot of money and all that. Do what you love.”

“Over 90% of people on death row were abused as kids. I mean, that’s massive. And then one day they take it out on some innocent victim.”

“When people rub us the wrong way, always be asking, what am I supposed to learn? What is this life event teaching me? What can I learn from this? That’s huge.”

Guest Bio

Sister Helen Prejean is known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. She has been instrumental in sparking national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping vigorous opposition to stop executions and start societal compassion.

In 1982, after moving into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor, Sister Helen became spiritual advisor to death row inmates. After witnessing executions, she realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away.

She wrote a book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States”. Dead Man Walking hit the shelves when national support for the death penalty was close to 90%. The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a theatre play, and an opera.

Sister Helen continues her work, dividing her time between educating the public, campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. She also embarked on a speaking tour that continues to this day.

FOLLOW Sister Helen

Sr Helen Prejean Site – Sr Helen Dot Org

Facebook – SisterHelenPrejean

Twitter – @HelenPrejean

Instagram – @helenprejean


Compassion, Philosophy, Writing

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