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Collateral Damage, acrylic on canvas 2005

Collateral Damage by Beverly Stessel, acrylic on canvas 2005

Choosing to Forgive
UMaine course emphasizes human compassion as a tool for building a culture of peace


Forgiveness: Creating a Culture of Peace and Reconciliation
Required and recommended reading for the Peace Studies course

Links Related to this Story

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 horribly wrong.

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 years."

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 of Lions."

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 Schindler's List.

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 worldview.

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 for wrongdoing.

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 moment.

"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 rechanneling energies."

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 ourselves."

"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 peace.

By Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2006

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