Choosing to Forgive
UMaine course emphasizes human compassion as a tool for
building a culture of peace
Eleven years ago, the unspeakable
happened in the small town of Redding, Conn.
Firefighters responding to a residential
blaze found the bodies of five young men three roommates and two of
their friends, all between the ages of 21 and 25. All died of gunshot
wounds to the head, the result of a landlord-tenant dispute gone
One of the tenants was David Froehlich.
"He was so pure," says Andrea Carlson of
Hampden, Maine, remembering her younger brother, a foster child born
with birth defects whom her parents adopted. "He loved trucks and he was
at that age when he was into hanging out with his friends. The boys had
just decorated their apartment for Easter."
Three years later, landlord Geoffrey
Ferguson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of
parole. With his imprisonment, Carlson says she closed the door on the
murderer who tore asunder the stable, safe, happy life her family knew.
"In my mind, I felt he was put away and no
longer a threat," Carlson says of her years of grieving. "With him in
prison, I could reject him as a person. I wouldn't even write his name
because I thought it would give him credence."
This past spring, nearly 11 years to that
April 18 day that David and his four friends were slain, Carlson spoke
of the unspeakable even the murder's name.
She was able to do it because she had
learned a new definition of forgiveness in a peace studies class at the
University of Maine.
"Up to now, my definition of forgiveness
involved both people in dialogue, with one apologizing and one granting
forgiveness," says Carlson. "I didn't differentiate between the action
and the person. I resisted changing that definition of forgiveness
throughout the semester because it had the implication of letting (the
offenders) off the hook and not holding them accountable.
"I now realize that you can separate the
deed from the person," she says. "You don't forgive the deed; it was
done and it was wrong. But you can forgive the person and what made him
or her so angry. Events in their lives shaped them, drove them to the
decisions they made."
Carlson was one of 20 UMaine students on
campus and throughout the state who signed up for PAX 491, an online
course, Forgiveness: Creating a Culture of Peace and Reconciliation. The
class is a research-based exploration of forgiveness using academic,
personal, historical and cultural perspectives. It is offered every
spring, one of eight courses each semester in UMaine's Peace Studies
Program. The classes are designed to help students understand the
"culture of violence" much of the world is locked into today and to
equip them with tools, such as heightened self-awareness, to build a
"culture of peace."
"All of our courses involve looking at the
difficulties of our current world and envisioning a new world built on a
culture of peace," says program director Phyllis Brazee, who coteaches
the course on forgiveness. "Creating such a new world is hard work, not
the Pollyanna notion of peace that has been around for the last 50
Students like Carlson often take the
forgiveness class to continue their work in peace studies. Others,
including nondegree students, enroll to inform their lives.
"Sometimes they are drawn to it because
they have things they personally want to work on," says instructor
Barbara Blazej of those who enroll. "They know that forgiveness can play
an important role in their lives."
In online discussions and reflection
papers, students share their experiences and emotions. They write of
their anger over parents divorcing and remarrying, high school
friendships lost over grudges, the untimely death of a parent, abuse.
One described forgiveness as "a foreign
language." Another said forgiveness was about "making a conscious choice
that you aren't going to live as an angry victim."
"The turning point for me was when I
realized (Geoffrey Ferguson) is just a person, that there must have been
something in his life that made him feel powerless when faced with
adversity," Carlson says. "He did what he did because he had no tools to
deal with his rage, except acting violently. I still can't fathom his
actual actions what he carried out over those hours. I still can't
imagine why he couldn't step back."
UMaine's course in forgiveness was first
offered in 2000, the year the United Nations launched its International
Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the
World. A catalyst for the class was Peace Week '99 on campus, which was
highlighted by a talk by former Mideast hostage and journalist Terry
Anderson, speaking on "The Search for Forgiveness: Returning to the Den
Anderson's appearance was followed in
subsequent years by other major figures speaking at UMaine on
forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, including John Artis, who was
imprisoned with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter for murders they didn't commit,
and Zev Kedem, a Holocaust survivor and one of the more than 1,100 on
Little did Blazej and Brazee know when
they launched the course that the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in 2001
would make their classes even more timely and challenging.
According to Brazee and Blazej, even after
an international, politically charged tragedy like 9-11, the nation had
an opportunity to resist automatic revenge and to practice seeking the
"whole" truth of what happened. In the class, they cite the research of
Donald Shriver, who explores what forgiveness could look like on a
political level, as part of a reconciliation process between communities
or nations in conflict.
In addition to truthtelling and
forbearance (resisting revenge), Shriver speaks of empathy, the attempt
to deeply understand not necessarily agree with where one's enemy is
coming from, how he or she sees the world and then acts on that
In other words, say Brazee and Blazej, the
goal is to know "why they hate us," but not in a simplistic, superficial
sense. Demonizing the perpetrators as evil, sick monsters enables people
to more easily go to war against them, yet such action offers no
understanding of the very real human motivations that led to the
violence in the first place.
The course moves from international to
personal perspectives on forgiveness within the framework of nonviolence
and peace. The first required reading is Simon Wiesenthal's powerful
Holocaust story, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of
Forgiveness. The students then consider a more recent conflict in A
Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy
of Apartheid by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
"A lot of people begin not only with a
misconception of what forgiveness means, but also with individual pain
that they carry," says Blazej, who has made professional presentations
on forgiveness, including a 2001 workshop in Russia at the 9th Annual
International Conference on Conflict Resolution. "We ease' them into
studying forgiveness by first exploring two historical events the
Holocaust and Apartheid. In this way, they become open to many views on
forgiveness and are better prepared to apply what they learn on a
personal level later in the course."
To forgive, one must develop an underlying
belief in the fundamental goodness and value of humanity, and the
possibility and potential for healing and moving on. It depends,
according to Blazej and Brazee, on the depth of the human spirit by
which we connect with other people while still holding them accountable
The lessons strike a chord with most, but
not all, students in the course. Over and over throughout the semester,
says Blazej, students ask how it's possible to forgive acts like rape or
atrocities against humanity. The key is in learning how to forgive the
person, not the offending word or deed.
"It's not a simple forgive-and-forget
formula, dismissing the act or about letting the person go. You still
need justice," Brazee says. "Forgiveness is about reframing or
rehumanizing, not about focusing solely on the (offending or horrific)
act. It's important to see (the perpetrators) as human, as being more
than the terrible acts they committed. When we start dehumanizing, we
start down a path that leads to a culture of violence."
Reframing seeing the forest for the
trees frees a person from intense emotions, including fear. Letting go
of bitterness and hatred is essential to gaining the inner peace needed
to move on with one's life, Blazej says. Personal healing begins when
negative energy is replaced with compassion and empathy, which are at
the heart of forgiveness.
Throughout the semester, students write
about their efforts to try to "see people differently" and to employ
compassion in their daily lives. They are encouraged to "practice daily
forgiveness" so that it can become "a way of life." Above all,
forgiveness is a process that one does over and over, peeling back pain
and fear like the layers of an onion in order to reach a transformative
"I see so many people in the world and in
our classes with so much anger," Brazee says. "They need to understand
that they have a choice whether to be angry. For many people, learning
that they can choose how to respond is a new life skill."
A culture of peace is not without
conflicts, Brazee says. "What's important is how you use conflict as a
creative process for growth an opportunity with potential for inner
peace. The more you engage in forgiveness work and the more inner peace
you achieve, the more joy you'll have in life. It has to do with
The hope is that UMaine's peace studies
students will become "active agents of change," helping create a culture
of peace that could transform society and the world.
"It's about choosing to see the world in a
different way," according to Blazej. "You can choose to feel hopeless,
to see enemies, wars and evil people at every turn, or you can take a
different view of humanity, realizing that even your worst enemy is
still human. Seeing all people as human is a hopeful way of looking at
the world and the potential we all have."
Carlson says the most important lesson she
learned in the class is that "forgiveness is something we give to
"We make the choice to heal and can then
take the steps to move through the process," she says. "There are many
relationships in my life that could be healed through forgiveness."
Yet for Carlson, the biggest challenge
remains in finding peace with Geoffrey Ferguson. Her journey is
complicated by the fact that Ferguson only served eight years behind
bars before committing suicide in his prison cell.
Since the class, Carlson has imagined
writing a letter to Ferguson's widow and hoping for a response.
"There's the pressure to let sleeping dogs
lie, but I also know that writing would be cathartic," she says. "I'm
not sure I'd ever do it, but the fact that I can now imagine the route
I'd take is something I'd never considered before."
But while a new definition of forgiveness
is now part of Carlson's life, she also recognizes the realities of the
world around her.
"I haven't broached the subject with my
parents," Carlson says. "Forgiving is seen as weak and mushy and not
standing up for yourself. It's seen as identifying with the perpetrator,
which makes you a traitor. It's almost a taboo in society."
For the instructors of PAX 491,
removing this long-standing taboo that shrouds forgiveness is essential
for resolving conflicts at all levels and moving toward a culture of
By Margaret Nagle
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