Embracing Fear

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!



Step to the Right?

If you’ve never heard of Jill Bolte Taylor, let me introduce you to her. If you’ve read her book, My Stroke of Insight, or listened to her TEDTalk, you already know what an incredible gift she is to the world. A stroke victim, she found herself inside her brain as the boundaries of her body disintegrated into space. Wow! she writes. This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brains from the inside out?”

I write this post, not only to honor Jill Bolte Taylor, but to honor every man and woman who has ever suffered a stroke, including my dear friend, Lya Sorano. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it’s like to experience this trauma–but man! Jill Bolte Taylor does a superb job of helping us know. If you’ll excuse me now, I need to stop writing so you can start listening. Please listen to Jill. Her words are some of the most inspirational I’ve ever heard.

Over the next few months I’ll share more about the brain, most especially, the power we all possess to “step to the right” of our left hemisphere and experience what Jill did during her stroke–a deep inner-peace—where stress disappeared and her spirit soared. No matter our affliction, whether physical or psychological, the power of the right brain can help us heal, change, and grow.

If you’d like to learn more and receive notification of future posts, then enter your email in the upper right and click “Follow.” I’d appreciate the opportunity to stay connected.

Dying to Live

What if you found out today that you only had a few years to live? I don’t mean to be morbid, and I’m definitely not writing to say goodbye. I’m good, really. I’m very healthy. But what if? Do you ever stop to ask yourself this important question? I do.

More importantly, I have clients who have good reason to ask. They’ve survived cancer, heart disease, or substance related disorders, and now more than ever, they’re determined to live life fully and die with little or no regrets.

I recently read an article titled, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.” The author, Bronnie Ware, worked in palliative care for many years. She discovered five common themes expressed by her patients—things they would do differently if they had the chance to turn back time.

Over the course of the next five weeks, I’ll share her patients’ top five regrets and invite you to reconsider some of your life choices. I’ll incorporate passages from a few of my favorite books that may inspire you to make a change before it’s too late. Here goes.

Regret #1: I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected me to live.  

Why is it that we can’t let go of others’ expectations? What drives us away from our dreams and keeps us stuck in unsatisfying jobs, unhealthy relationships, unfulfilling past times, or behavioral ruts? One of my favorite authors, Dawna Markova, hits the nail on the head in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life. She writes…

To explore what it would mean to live fully, sensually alive and passionately on purpose, I have to drop my preconceived ideas of who and what I am. It is as if the salt of years is running free from me. Like so many of us, my head has been stuffed full of knowledge, but something in me is still starving. So here, I seek to empty it of the stories, explanations, and interpretations I am clutching in the fist of my mind. When did it get so tightly closed that it became numb? And what was it holding onto anyway? I want it free. I want my heart and soul free. Free of and free from. Free of struggle, free from doubt in the canyons of my bones, free from running from the truth of knowing that something has been missing.

It’s hard to follow such a beautifully written passage, so let me build on a phrase that is the essence of what I help people do as a psychotherapist and life coach. I seek to empty the stories, explanations, and interpretations I am clutching in the fist of my mind.  So many of us cling to the stories handed down by our families. We adopt definitions of societal success, thinking we should live up to these standards, instead of authoring our own. We cling to professional titles; we clutch onto secure, yet unsatisfying relationships. We close our mind and resist our heart’s desire. We ignore a haunting voice inside that whispers, something’s just not right.

It takes a great deal of courage to respond to that voice. It takes even more courage to say, It’s time to change my life.  If familiar old stories continue to hold you hostage, simply ask yourself the question I started with today, What if I only had a few years to live?

See where it takes you. Give this voice a chance. Maybe it will free your mind from preconceived ideas of who and what you should be.