By now, it’s likely you’ve seen the beautiful snapshot of a tearful 12-year old black youth, Devonte Hart, and a thoughtful white cop, Sgt. Bret Barnum, hugging during a protest rally in Portland, Oregon. Only moments before the photo was snapped, Devonte was riddled with fear. According to his mother…
He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), ‘Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.
Despite his fear, Devonte looked into the eyes of a man who represented danger. Despite his position, Officer Barnum approached this young man in a respectful, caring way. In an instant, healing happened. In a moment, lives were changed.
I write this post, not as political or social commentary. I write to inspire readers to face their fear head on instead of denying its existence. We all feel fear. This emotion is crucial to our survival, as it is for all species. Yet unlike a rabbit that freezes, flees, and soon forgets about the fox that just stalked him, humans can’t always escape the aftermath of a threatening encounter, especially during childhood. It doesn’t matter if the threat is real or perceived, it feels real to us.
If no one is available to sooth our distress or help us understand what’s happening around us, our emotional brain becomes frozen like a rabbit in a sensory fear response. As egocentric children, we often make the threat personal and convince ourselves that we’re the cause. When we do, fear compounds and turns into a terrifying monster. In adulthood, it takes on names like generalized anxiety, PTSD, phobias, obsessive-compulsion, and acute stress. Sometimes our monsters become controlling, destructive, violent or shaming. They often bring harm to our bodies, minds and spirits. They harm others too.
Naturally, we start fearing fear, crazy as that may seem. We learn to minimize fear, discount its power over us, or suppress the overwhelming feelings. We don’t want to remember the source of our trauma and we definitely don’t want to feel vulnerable. Someone might think we’re weak, call us a wimp, or try to push us around. So we learn to avoid feeling fear instead of embracing it.
But not Devonte! No, not this courageous kid who was born addicted to drugs, shot at by age four, and abused and neglected until two loving women adopted him in 2007. Imagine the fear they must have felt as they questioned their capacity to help him heal his emotional wounds. Once again, I quote his mother, Jen Hart…
Through patience, love, good parenting, love, acceptance, and more love, Devonte turned things around.
What a beautiful family. What a courageous child. Together, along with Sgt. Bret Barnum, they show us that fighting and/or fleeing from fear does nothing to heal our pain. But free hugs? I’ll take one any day!