On Invisible Backpacks

We don’t forgive and forget. We do the opposite. We remember and grow resentful.

Loyal Pressing Pausers may remember I’m serving on my church’s 12-person Council which provides leadership for the congregation. We’ve been working tirelessly to resolve a protracted conflict between our pastor and staff. Most recently, we tried mediation by asking everyone involved to participate in conversations with trained facilitators.

Despite being complimentary of the co-facilitators, the pastor and staff reached an impasse after just two meetings and decided not to continue with mediation. In hindsight, the impasse was predictable because of the resolution center’s philosophical orientation of quickly pivoting from the past to the present and future.

Far too quickly. Because we do not fully forgive or forget, protracted group conflict can’t be resolved quickly.

The mediators would probably say their emphasis on the present and future is because people get mired in the past. Certainly some do, but that’s because things stick. To varying degrees to different people. There’s no one for whom everything “just rolls of their back”. We range from “kinda sensitive” to “hella sensitive”, meaning in dysfunctional work environments, negative interactions and experiences build within people. I think of this in terms of invisible backpacks.

Everyone in your workplace, and maybe even church, walk around with invisible backpacks on. Some people only have one or two negative interactions or experiences in theirs, meaning it lies almost flat against their backs. Other’s backpacks are jammed full of years of negative interactions and experiences. Those backpacks in particular are heavy, meaning they have a daily, deleterious effect on those people.

Negative interactions and experiences are endemic to every workplace, no matter how wonderful the culture. The difference is at some places there are regular opportunities for co-workers to openly and honestly discuss low-level frustrations thus keeping their backpacks almost imperceptively light. People need opportunities to say, “It really hurt me when. . . ” And “I feel. . . was unfortunate or unfair because. . .” Or “I’ve been frustrated every since. . . ”

Absent those mechanisms, resentment and antipathy builds to the point that positive interactions are highly unlikely because harmonious relations require people to give one another some grace, or cushion, or benefit of the doubt in the form of, “You don’t have to communicate or even act perfectly all the time, because we’re only human, and I know from previous experience that you have my best interest in mind.”

Apologizing for communication or other missteps is the other half of the reconciliation equation, but when the past is deemed relatively unimportant, people are unaware of how they have contributed to what’s in other’s backpacks.

While on a whole different scale, South Africa’s and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions illustrate that a person, a couple, a workplace, a nation proceeds at their own peril if they try to finesse the past. As Justice Murray Sinclair of Canada says, “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts.”

Amen to that.

 

Lola the Doodle Has More Twitter Followers Than Me

Granted, she’s much more of a looker, but I have a better sense of humor, and I link to more interesting content. For the love of all things internet, she hasn’t even tweeted since late August. If you have a mean streak and want to extend Lola’s lead over me, you can follow her here.

As if that wasn’t enough humble pie for the week, on Friday I was sitting in a Portland, Oregon Honda dealership when a cute as a button 2 year old with light red hair smiled at me from afar and then marched right up to me as if I was a 6’2″ magnet. She stuck her hand out, I stuck mine out, and we shook. Unnecessarily embarrassed, her mom ran up behind her. “She sure is friendly,” I said, to which she replied, “Oh yes!” And then to her Button, “He looks a lot like grandpa doesn’t he?!” Shee-it.

I was 30 when Alibaba was born and she’s 22, so yes technically, I could easily be a grandpa, but I don’t need total strangers reminding me of that. If you listen carefully you can hear my sissy in Florida saying, “Deal with it.” I’ll try.

The blog is getting old too. . . it turns eight in January. By then there will have been 90k page views, which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t. That’s a decent day for some of the bloggers I regularly read. It truly is the “humble blog”. One result of it’s longevity is I have to think longer and harder about whether I’m repeating myself because nothing says “grandpa” like mindlessly repeating yourself.

Another result of having written 887 posts, is it’s harder to come up with original ideas. Take today for example. God said he’d understand if I ditched church to ride my bicycle on what’s likely one of the last beautiful days of 2014. It was good to see teammates I haven’t been able to ride with for awhile now that I’m a working stiff.

I dig riding in cool spring and fall weather. This ride was shaping up to be damn near idyllic until someone flatted. That always prompts the question, “Should we wait?” It’s a sliding scale, mid-day in the summer probably not, early evening in the fall/winter, yes. Someone said, “Jeff said not to wait.” At the time, I was second wheel. I told the guy in front of me, “Let’s go then.” At a stop sign, three miles later, the Doctor said, “Gordon said to wait, and to pass it up.” To which I said, “A little late wouldn’t you say.” So Gordon was HOT when our routes crossed an hour later.

Then I got a little ornery on a climb and four or five of us gapped another four or five. One of those riders pulled up a few miles later at an intersection and bitched about being dropped. Which caused BDub to snap. “You fuckin’ little sissy girl! No one waited for me for three months last spring when I was riding myself back into shape!”

As the ride spiraled downward I started blogging in my head. Thought one. . . group riding has it’s advantages and disadvantages, but I already wrote about the pros and cons of group living here. Thought two. . . cooperation and fitness should trump athletic competition, but I wrote about that here and here and here. Repetition rears it’s ugly head. Good thing even the most loyal readers (Hey Mother Dear!) can’t remember more than a fraction of the 887 posts.

This corner of the blogosphere has plateaued. Year seven is almost a wrap. Maybe a sabbatical is in order.

Reflections on Group Living

I’m sitting in a chair in a rental house in Black Butte Ranch, 40 miles from Bend, in the high desert of Central Oregon.

I’m with nine other people from Olympia. Cycling enthusiasts all. We’re riding 500+ miles in five days. With around 30 other people from the area.

At least 500+ miles is the plan. I don’t think I’ll make it, not because I’m not physically able to, although that’s a possibility, but mostly because I’m not mentally up to it. The friends I’m with passionately love cycling. I like it.

Today we rode from Bend, up to Bachelor, towards Sunriver, up Forest Road 40, to Elk Lake, past Bachelor again, and back to Bend. 100 miles, over 6k of climbing. The middle 30-40 miles were as scenic as any 30-40 mile stretch in the country. Very sorry dear reader, but I opted for a light jacket over my camera. Terrible decision.

My challenges are three-fold, the first less relevant than the next two. First, unlike many of my companions, I don’t dream of riding 100 miles every day. Mentally I have to toughen up.

Second, imagine this, some of my companions are more social than me. One extrovert today tried to chat me up while we were climbing one of the most difficult sections. I was on the edge physically and didn’t have sufficient oxygen to respond. So I rode in silence. No hard feelings I don’t think because it was more of a “I want you to know I exist” stream of consciousness. Still, I found it really irritating. Maybe I should have said what I was feeling. . . please just let me suffer in silence.

Third, group travel is always a test of patience. The more people, the more waiting. Someone is always slow moving and running late. Tonight we waited 30 minutes for someone to shower when all of us were anxious to stuff our faces in town.

When in groups, irritability induced by different personality types and having to wait for one another are inevitable conflicts and yet we’re masterful at suppressing our frustrations and pretending as if everything is perfectly okay. The challenge for friends, teachers and students, partners, spouses, families, and small friendship or work groups is to anticipate conflict and not overact to it by learning to talk about one another’s feelings openly and honestly. So that things don’t build up to a point where there’s very little hope for constructive conflict resolution.

I’m not any better at this than you just because I’m communicating this idea and you’re more passively reading about it. I’m a typical male, meaning a masterful suppressor of conflict. We dust seemingly small things under the rug all the time only to have them angrily pour out every blue moon. Tonight, I could seek out my housemate and caringly explain my thought process today so that she’d better understand the next time we’re in the same situation. Instead, I’m going to bed.

 

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden

Last week I presented a paper at a “Globalization, Diversity, & Education” conference near Portland. It’s a small conference attended by equal numbers of liberals and radicals. An ideological oasis for lefties. At times it felt like I was on the set of Portlandia.

People enjoy like-minded company because it’s self-affirming, but at conferences it makes for less-interesting sessions because there’s little to no tension. When everyone is of the same mind, no one is pressed to rethink or refine their ideas. Conflict is exasperating, but after awhile, blanket likemindedness can be equally vexing.

I’ve never been too fond of professional conferences mostly because networking is a weakness of mine. Also, too much of the content is theoretical and directed only at other academics resulting in an echo chamber far too removed from families’, teachers’, and students’ day-to-day lives. And too often it’s a game—participants are simply padding their vitas with an eye toward promotion. I couldn’t help but think how differently people would have to write their papers if they were forced to present them in pubs or community centers to a mix of citizens from different walks of life.

The highlight of the conference was the film “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” by Carol Black. Black created the Emmy award winning television series The Wonder Years with her husband Neal Marlens. TWY is one of my fav series of all time. After TWY, and the birth of her children, Black withdrew from Hollywood, got involved in the alternative education movement, and researched cross-cultural perspectives on education which lead to the making of the film. Black attended my paper presentation and helped in the discussion of it. I also talked to her right before the film screened. A lot of her thinking about alternative education resonants with me. Someone I wish I could get to know better.

Here’s the film summary from the DVD cover:

Schooling the World takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply disturbing look at the effects of modern education on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures. If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a ‘better’ life for indigenous children. But is this true? What really happens when we replace a traditional culture’s way of learning and understanding the world with our own?

It’s as well made and provocative an educational documentary as you’re going to see. Many viewers will resist the message and leave upset. After watching the film, one person did ask Black why she drew such a sharp dichotomy between the “negatives of western education and consumer culture” and the “positives of non-western cultures and people”. Black acknowledged the dichotomy and said it was intentional because no one ever questions the premise that western education is a positive force for all of the world’s children. It was a thoughtful explanation for the film’s one-sidedness. I couldn’t help but think of how when I’m arguing with my Better Half, frustration clouds my thinking and I take more extreme stands than I normally would.

I could write a few week’s worth of posts on the film’s content. One thought. Few in the audience probably thought to use the film as a mirror for evaluating their teaching. Every educator enters the classroom with biases, privileging some cultural practices, disregarding others. Put differently, every educator sometimes slights the significance of their students’ backgrounds. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How do my preservice teachers and how do I impose our worldview on students?”

Another thought in the form of a premise. Even if we could close every boarding school in traditional societies around the world, indigenous cultures would still face the same challenges imposed on them by western education as a result of global media including television, music, film, and advertising. I’ve written in the past about the societal curriculum‘s effect on students. Sam Wineburg and friends have shown that modern film is the single most influential resource in shaping high schoolers historical understanding. Here’s their paper titled, “Forest Gump and the Future of Teaching the Past.

Beginning in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was blown away by how pervasive western popular culture was in my travels through East Africa and China. In African markets, endless posters of the three Mikes—Jackson, Tyson, Jordan. Hiking up a steep trail to the Great Wall, I was subjected to Lionel Ritchie whose music was being piped in through cheap speakers tied to tree branches.  Immediately after a Chinese teacher talked teaching with some colleagues and me as required, she turned far more animated and excitedly asked if we had seen the Bridges of Madison County. My favorite Michael Jordan poster in China, like all English in China, had a wonderful typo. Under his picture it said, “Michael Jordan, MBA.” Tru dat.

So given global satellites, coaxial cables, the internet, and smart phones, the central question, “How can we avoid imposing our worldview on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures?” is even more challenging than the film suggests. Maybe Black’s film will inspire someone else to make a companion one on the global media. And maybe people much smarter than me will figure out how to manage globalization so that indigenous cultures aren’t completely overwhelmed to the detriment of us all.