You’re probably familiar with the Flat Stanley Project, which is an effort to connect school children from around the world by taking a “flat,” cut-out guy and getting pictures of him in as many places as possible.
Because I live in Europe, a dear friend sent me Flat Henry on behalf of Manchester Park Elementary in Lenexa, KS. This is the story of my epiphany with Flat Henry.
When I received Henry, I puzzled over what would most interest school children in Kansas and the first thing to pop in my head was borders.
I’ve noticed since living in Europe that Americans are often intrigued by European country borders. And at the time, I lived near the Drielandenpunt, or Three-Country Point, which is the exact point where Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany meet.
So I drove Flat Henry there on a mild day in February to rack up three countries in the matter of minutes.
While I was there, wandering freely from border to border with my little cut-out boy, surrounded by tourists, and deciding if I wanted to eat German, Belgian, or Dutch food for lunch, I traveled back to a time still in my own father’s memory to World War II and thought about the great divides these borders created.
Henry and I were standing on the front lines of the largest war in modern history and the divisions created by these invisible lines led to the death of over 60 million people, or 2.5% of the world’s population.
The aftermath of World War II saw Europe devastated in a way that is difficult to envision today as I live in work in Europe in an multinational organization.
When I first moved to Europe and started my job, I was intrigued about whether there were lingering tensions among countries such as Germany and the UK and France, but have found that the tensions were minimal to nonexistent. Sometimes jokes were made about German aggression or the Americans coming in to save the day. But what I’ve witnessed is: they have made peace with their past and borders no longer divide them.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, but Europe has built bridges, a common currency, and decided that they are stronger working together than separated. At work, I sit between a German and a French Lieutenant Colonel and if WWII comes up, which it does from time to time, a good-natured joke is made that everyone can laugh at.
Last year in 2012, I marveled in seeing the European Union awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – thanks in large part for creating a historically-unprecedented zone of peace and prosperity.
So how did Europe go from the ethno-nationalist-fueled death and destruction of the 1940s to the “all for one” Euro-Atlantic military Alliance of today that is bound to protect one another, with shared norms, values and even a (mostly) shared currency?
There are countless Ph.Ds written on the above question and I spent two years studying aspects of it in graduate school, but I was never taught a fundamental lesson: At some point the people of Europe chose to see peace and forgive. Not only did they forgive, they formed alliances and put measures in place to ensure the atrocities of the past could not be repeated.
Until we learn to forgive, we remain in a state of anger and fear. These are the states that lead to violent thoughts and violent acts. If the people of France and Germany refused to forgive and held on to the fears of the past, where would Europe be today? Would it be peaceful? If not, where would the world be today without a peaceful Europe?
I learned a key lesson about forgiveness when I had a boss who treated me like I wasn’t good enough. After I left the job, I struggled to forgive because the verbal assaults still burned my skin.
I realized in trying to forgive this person that forgiveness is a process. The French didn’t forgive the Germans overnight, but forgiveness did come. And it took me years to forgive my former boss, but I have. And that act of forgiveness has lead me to a happier, freer, more peaceful existence.
So for this week, I challenge you to start the process of forgiveness of someone that you haven’t been able to forgive.
To start the process, 1) close your eyes and feel the words and acts that hurt you, 2) release the negative emotions the words or acts drudge up, 3) and take in a few deep breaths and say out loud or to yourself, “I forgive you.”
And periodically just say to yourself, “I bless (person’s name).” In time, the forgiveness will start outweighing the anger and you will add more peace to your life and the people around you.
As we look at current day conflicts, we see that without the act of forgiveness the fear and anger can push the conflict to churn and churn and churn. This is why after negotiating political settlements, the process of forgiveness must commence. Because forgiveness is the key ingredient to lasting peace both within yourself and in the world.
I am inspired by the people of Europe who chose forgiveness and to move on from the cataclysmic events of both the First and Second World Wars and no longer live in the past. All for one. They have shown us that forgiveness lifts the fog and enables us to see the peace in the world.
I also want to thank the Flat Stanley Project for creating an amazing program that is connecting children (and adults) all over the world, I want to thank the school children of Manchester Park Elementary who so lovingly created Flat Henry, I want to thank my dear friend Morgan who sent Flat Henry to her friends all over the world, and I want to thank Flat Henry for allowing me to receive this valuable lesson.
Now I want to hear from you. Was there a time in your life where you felt unable to forgive? Or has forgiveness led to an area of enhanced peace for you? Is there a place in the world where we need to send some forgiveness? Post your thoughts below.
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Remember, it’s the little changes we make in our daily life that brings greater peace to the whole.