The Balancing Act

By Farhan Ahmed

Yesterday, while walking my dog with a friend, I was rudely awakened to the reality of the colour of my skin. While approaching a metro station,  I suddenly found myself nearly crashing into a tall, skinny man in the middle of the road (he was white, which matters for this story, but didn't matter to me then). Thinking nothing of it at first, I proceeded to move to one side to walk past him, only to find him in front of me again. I was ready to dismiss it as an honest mistake, a benign misunderstanding, a comical confusion that can happen sometimes when two people keep redirecting in the same direction. I chuckled in my head as I said "Sorry", finding this apparent miscalculation of coordination quite charming. With this cheerful assumption, I moved again to the other side, only to find that the man walked backwards, to be in front of me yet again. It was then that I noticed the beer can in one hand, cigarette in the other and the stench of alcohol in his afternoon breath. I looked up to see his face - jagged, edgy, bald, with bulging angry eyes glaring back at me. He bobbed his head towards me, pushing his shoulders back in defiance, and uttered a hoarse "Quoi?!" into my face. I stood there shocked for a second, not sure what was happening, scanning my mind for what I might have done to provoke this behaviour, and finding nothing at all. The logical next step was to walk away. But as I tried to do so in silence, it seemed to agitate him even more, making him scream at me even louder. All this transpired in about 60 seconds. 

It was at that moment that my friend - a tall, towering, Irish chap - placed himself in between us like a wall, blocking this man's view of me as best as he could. My friend remained calm, polite, even friendly towards him, while quietly asking me to keep walking away. I experienced a series of divergent thoughts and feelings. Firstly, the act of cutting him off from me restored a sense of safety I had abruptly lost a minute ago. Secondly, I felt immense gratitude towards my friend, selflessly placing himself in danger to protect me. Thirdly, I began to feel concern for his safety, hoping that the perpetrator did not hurt him instead. After a couple of minutes of yelling at me over my friend, and then yelling at my friend too, in nonsensical slurred French, he finally told him "Allez-y. Bonne journée!" and walked away. As I began to process what had just happened in the minutes that followed, I noticed that I was not ready to believe that it had anything to do with race. I wanted to assume that he was just having a bad day, had a few too many beers, maybe didn't like my jacket etc. Yet, from my friend's point of view, it was very clear that this man picked me out from all the others on the street at that time, and decided that his quibble was with me, that it was my face he had to get into. "I saw him beeline straight for you, mate" my friend told me. As he saw it, it looked too much like other instances he had been present for before, where the motivation for aggression was clearly racial. 

Today, in sporadic moments of recollection, I find myself wondering what should be my reaction to this event? Should I lean into my anger, fester hatred towards this man and all that he represents, obliterating any cheery notion of a just world that I held prior to this incident? Or should I dive into the spiritual wisdom of unconditional love and forgiveness, see his side of life, the suffering and hatred that has hardened his heart to become what he is today? There is no simple choice. The former position is a more common response, thus easier to slip into. Yet, it bears within it the seed of perpetual hatred and animosity. Because hate begets more hate, ad infinitum. Furthermore, by choosing to lose faith in the goodness of people based on this singular incident, I stood to lose my own inner peace and calm. However, the latter is untenable response for an average human being living in an imperfect society. Although the likes of a Gandhi or a Jesus may grasp at such unconditional forgiveness, it is very difficult to embody for the rest of us. Especially when the transgression one faces goes beyond just words (which is all I faced, thankfully) to actual physical assault. To ask of someone to be unconditionally forgiving to their assailant in such a situation, does not seem very realistic. And in my experience, the times when I have met someone claiming to be able to do so, they either never faced any actual aggression, or they were forcing themselves to suppress their true emotions to such a degree that they ended up becoming caricatures of themselves, losing all authenticity in their own existence. 

There remains only one choice for me, and that is to hold both perspectives at once. Even though they are seemingly contradictory positions, I realized that the IFS framework actually provides an operational model for me to be able to do so. As I processed this experience, looking through the lens of IFS, I began to identify psychic parts, tracing their motivations, intentions, burdens and behaviors. Within myself, I hold multiple parts. Some of them are angry at the man for they way he saw me, parts that felt dehumanized by his behaviour. There are other parts that are playing out mental fantasies, redoing the incident, in which I am a black belt in Karate and land a few righteous punches on his face. One part  of me is wishing that my dog (who didn't even notice anything happened) was not the super friendly husky that she is, but was a vicious German Shepherd instead, ready to pounce when needed. There are also parts in me that are acutely aware of the unfairness I experienced, and feel very much like a veritable victim. At the same time, I also wonder about this man and his psychic parts, his experiences in life that led him to his restless state. What parts of him made him do what he did? What burdens of suffering is he carrying that hold his hatred? What lies behind that hatred - is it an irrational fear of the other, some secret insecurity about himself, or maybe a deep self-hatred that is merely reflected outwards towards me? What part of him could not stand to be sober at 4PM in the afternoon? And ultimately, what are the parts within him that feel like a victim as well? 

As such, in an effort to not let this incident sway me too far from my centre, I engaged in an exercise of holding both these perspectives at once. It is this balancing act, this thin line between raging hatred and unconditional love, where I strive to live from today, so that I may honour all I experienced, the light and the dark, the anger, the hatred, the sympathy and the love, while still maintaining my inner peace, humanity and authenticity.