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.