The loss of Ahmed's innocence

The Ahmed incident provoked deep sadness and unease in me. Whatever else happened, how could anyone think that handcuffing a regular old schoolboy was okay? Given that this has happened though, what could we learn from it? How should we strive to get better as a society? As usual, people that have nothing to do with the real human beings involved in this tragic event have fled to the opposite poles: grandstanding indignation on one side and defensive, self-protective, cover-our-backside posturing – and even vile demonization in some cases – on the other. This movie has played out too many times lately. The details different in each case. The motif the same: The distrust of people by people.

We live in a fear-driven society. Our consumption, our advertising, our media, our political discourse, what we teach our children, how we be in the world is all driven by the paradigm of fear. The paradigm arises in a sense of separation, not connectedness as the core of how we live and relate with each other. The authorities in Irving, Texas did not create that paradigm. They are victims of it. They could not countenance being wrong. In their estimation, the cost of being wrong was too high. In the litigious, fearful, blame-ridden world we live in, they simply did the most risk-averse thing possible. They did not have the courage to believe in the innate goodness of humanity and act from that place. They made the trade-off to sacrifice the innocence of one young boy at the altar of their fears. The fact that the prevalent mores led them to that conclusion, is as much an indictment of all of us in the world, as it is of them.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of the authorities (the teacher, the principal or the senior police officer at the scene), and it is impossible for me to predict how I might have reacted if I was in their shoes. I hope that I would have been able to react very differently, but away from the comfort of low-stakes hypothesizing, it is hard to say what I might have actually done under pressure. Acknowledging the gap between who I am and who I would like to be, it is imaginable that in their place, I too may make the mistake of racial profiling, stereotyping (and these are downright funny coming from me, a South Asian living in the US) and fear-based response. But hand over heart, there is one thing I know for sure. Having made that mistake, I would not run from it. I would not try to justify what I did and hide behind defenses. I would rip my heart out and put it out there for all to see, as a pure heart, as a heart ravaged by fear and prejudice, but not by hatred. A heart that wishes to believe in the connectedness of all there is, but has not been able to make that leap of faith yet. Can the human beings behind the façade of authority open up their hearts to Ahmed and his family, and for once, not worry about politics, religion, litigation, their jobs, the media circus and the news cycle, and themselves? What is happening here is bigger than any of us. If they can find the courage to show up as regular old well-meaning people, show their vulnerability and sincerely apologize to Ahmed, I think all could be forgiven. (Of course, the only people who have the authority to take offense and to forgive are Ahmed and his family. The rest of us are just the peanut gallery.)

What is missing from our society more than courageous actions, is the courage to be human and admit our mistakes, and a resolve to do something about it. We want to fix others, when the only real choice we have, is to fix ourselves.

Albert Einstein had said: “Before we decide anything else, we must decide first and foremost, if the world is a safe place.” Clearly, most of us have decided that the world is not a safe place. But we can choose to be victims of that narrative, or stand up to it, and be willing to accept the consequences of choosing to change it, to act as if the world is a safe place. Because the world is a self-fulfilling prophecy of our assumptions about it.

What can leaders take away from this sorry saga? This is a lesson in accepting the burden of decision-making, and the power of vulnerability and courage.

  • When all is on the line, we have to make the decision. There is no room for doubt then. We need to use our best judgement, make a decision, and act. But if proven wrong in hindsight:
  • We must show vulnerability and admit we got it wrong. No one must carry the burden of being perfect. We cannot insulate ourselves from our very human emotions and respond mechanically and inauthentically to the negative consequences of our decisions.
  • Look at what systemic forces led us to that wrong decision and are we doing enough to change them. We will always be tripped up by the system, the paradigm through which we look at the world. We must do our darnedest to look at the system, not just through it.

Upsets are merely set-ups

Truckee, CA


I have been on a journey of personal transformation. We are always learning and growing of course, but for the last year and a half, I have been consciously, actively working to evolve into the next version of me. I have had many learnings. These learnings aren’t just ideas that I intellectually understand, but they are new capabilities that I aspire to embody and employ to manage real-life situations. One of my lessons has been “Upsets are merely set-ups”. I always say to clients and friends that breakdowns and pain are actually portals to learning and growth, and hence not something to be avoided. When we shirk from pain, we shirk from learning. Yesterday I was presented with a glorious opportunity to apply this learning to myself, and this time very literally so.

Into my 4th hour of skiing for the season, a season I was really looking forward to, I had a bad fall. I slid on my back for about 40-50 yards, the skis didn’t come off for some reason and my left knee was badly twisted. I had to be hauled down in a stretcher, the medical staff checked me out, and the prognosis is that two of my ligaments (the ACL the MCL) are torn. A couple of hours later, I left the emergency room on crutches with my left knee in a brace.

I have had ample opportunity in the last 24 hours to reflect upon this “breakdown” and “pain”. And I was happy to observe that I have been able to spot the responses of the “old me” and have been able to interject and choicefully insert the responses of the “new me”.

From the very beginning, I found myself focusing on breathing deeply and accepting that this had happened, and could not now be changed. I just had to do the best in this moment.

Here are the stories of the “old me”:

Denial: I wish this hadn’t happened. I was thinking about how somehow this could be undone. I was hoping for a miracle.

Self-blame: I am a klutz. I have no business to be skiing, the progress I made last season notwithstanding. I should have been more careful on that slope.

Loss: This will negatively affect my life in all domains.  I looked ahead to all the plans that I have for my life and all the possibilities that would be lost. The entire season of skiing, the vacation in Burma and Thailand for my sister’s 25th wedding anniversary in 6 weeks, the workshops and sessions that I have to conduct, all the biz dev effort for my business, my plans for running a marathon in 2015, my ongoing efforts to learn to swim properly in the hope of doing a small triathlon, my commitment to coach my kids baseball team in the spring, all the various activities that I do with them that require me to be fit, etc. etc.

Guilt: I looked ahead with a groan to basic activities like driving, showering, going to the toilet, moving around the house, etc. I will be stuck at home and be useless for God knows how many months. I am going to be a burden on family and friends.  I will need help for everything. I will be in their way. Their quality of life will suffer. My wife anyway has to deal with the stress of her career and now she has to do my bit on the home front too.

Blaming others: I blamed the icy conditions that morning. I also wondered if the guy who adjusted my ski bindings messed up. Had the skis come off, my knee would likely not have been injured.  The EMT in the ER who was evaluating my injury checked the bindings and said the setting numbers were right for my skill level, but it is possible that it was poorly calibrated. Based on my description of the accident, he felt that the skis should have come off. I had thoughts about suing the place I rented the skis from. I had the thought of getting the skis examined by someone else to validate that the skis were indeed at fault before approaching the rental place.

So as you can see, my “old self” had a lot of stories, and none of them served me well. The good thing of course is that with all the practice I have had coaching my coachees to become aware of and transcend the unhelpful stories, I was largely able to do that for myself as well.

Here is what the “new me” had to say:

Acceptance: As thoughts would swirl and “old me” stories would arise, ”new me” would bring me back to this moment, by focusing on the breath. I reminded myself that I am here now, and there is no way to go back to the past and redo. Any emotional cycles I spent on that was a waste of time. Did I really want to make a wasteful choice? What is the best thing I could do right now? When I was escaping into the future, thinking about all the challenges I would have to face, “new me” would remind me that from where I was, on the stretcher, I couldn’t do anything about those challenges. When they actually happen, those things will anyway be different than how I might imagine them right now, so why bother.  I only did the bare essentials, like inform the people I needed to for logistical reasons (wife – come fetch me; friend – please manage my kids on the slopes) and that’s that. Minimum drama.

I found myself wondering if I should ski again. And then chuckled when “new me” asked, “Why does this decision have to be made right now?” I couldn’t help but agree!

Gratitude: “New me” started listing all the things it was grateful for. The fact that I was wearing a helmet, that no bones were broken, that pain was not much, that I hadn’t crashed into and hurt anybody else, that we were running behind on making MLK day bookings for stay in Tahoe and therefore aren’t saddled with a booking we might not be able to use, that we were running behind for Burma lodging bookings too (we do have air tickets), that we live in a ranch style house and there are no stairs to negotiate, that I have not yet paid for gym membership in advance for the whole year like I had planned to, etc. etc. I was even grateful that I had the opportunity in the first place that this could happen, that I had the luxury and leisure of skiing.

Possibility: I started to think about what possibilities emerged from this.

Professionally, a lot of writing material has been swirling in my head, and I have no excuse now to leave it there. I will have a lot of time that I can’t do much else with, but a torn ACL should not come in the way of typing. So perhaps that is the set-up that needs to come out of this upset. There will be a lot more blogposts, and may be a book too!

I get to practice taking responsibility and acting with compassion. I declared I will not even think about suing anyone. Even if the rental place made a mistake in their binding settings, no purpose will be served by my seeking any recompense. I will help them learn from this mistake for sure, if they have some process improvement to do that will prevent such errors in future (IF there was an error), and that’s it.

One of the things I have always been grateful for is that my life is devoid of adversity in general, that I have had it easy. A possibility that now emerges is that I get to practice overcoming adversity, which is a muscle I have not had to build before. Overall, I sense a resolve in me to be more diligent and to apply myself more. Even in this one day, I found myself making healthier eating choices (now that my possibility for exercise would be limited for some time), not procrastinating on writing this blogpost, meditated twice in the day rather than once, was conscious of stretching the parts of my body that I could (stretching daily is very important, especially at my age, and I often get lazy), and was more orderly with my clothes and stuff, focusing on not making a mess that someone else will have to help clean. I intend to nurture this more disciplined way of being.

I get to feel even more connected with and loved by my family and friends. I have to let them support me, and in the process get closer to them. I read somewhere that we like people we help (likely because they give us an opportunity to help them and thus feel good about ourselves). So I intend to practice asking for help, feeling the love and connection and reveling in the closeness with and benevolences of the wonderful people in my life.

I would guess that at the end of the first 15 minutes, I gave the “old self” stories only 10% power. Rest of my power was channeled towards the “new self” stories.

You could say that my “new self” is simply rationalizing. That is true, of course. As meaning making beings, we humans are constantly coming up with stories to make sense of the world around us. We do not have a choice in whether we make up stories or not. We shed old stories only to replace them with new ones. Stories are not true or false. But they are helpful or unhelpful. We can choose what stories we give power to. The meaning that I am choosing to make of this accident is that there indeed is a “new me” and that “new me” has the ability to come up with more helpful stories that serve me better. These stories help me not waste time, take better action and produce better results. And if that is the set-up from this upset, then I am totally okay with that.