I Looked Down the Barrel of a Gun and Found Compassion
The impetus to share this story arose as a response to the chaos that was unfolding in the summer of 2016. I have come to think of that summer as the time of my own awakening when I heard the call to action and made the decision to do more to have a positive impact on the world. My hope is that reading it will not only help you gain some insight into what motivates me, but will awaken you as well to being bolder, and more courageous to create the world you want to live in.
And for those close to me who were previously unaware of this story and might be shocked and distressed to learn about what I experienced, I need you to recognize that, while I kept this story from you, I have never hidden the essential part of my truth: I am and have always been OK. I encourage you to keep this in mind as you read below.
The place was a small fishing village in northern Brazil. A piece of paradise where nothing much happens other than eating, surfing, dancing and swimming with dolphins who delight in teasing humans with their regular visits to the beach.
My husband and I were on the last leg of our month-long honeymoon in South America. That morning, we decided to take the ferry from the mainland to a small strip of beach frequented by kite surfers. There was a makeshift restaurant at one end close to where the kite surfers were doing their thing, and a broad stretch of beach further up the strip.
We decided to admire the kite surfers at a distance and set up far enough away that we could enjoy the tranquility offered by the nearly uninhabited stretch of white sand and the hazard free ocean in front of us.
We were alone with the exception of 3 men who were hanging out, throwing what looked like a flimsy fishing line in the water. It seemed like a strange way to fish, but what did I know? I didn’t give it much thought. One of them looked like someone who had attended University with me. Another fleeting thought. Without a care in the world, we turned our backs on them to face the sun.
My next memory was of being woken from a daze by one of those men standing over me, yelling. My eyes struggled to transition from the darkness behind my eyelids to the blinding white light of the sun that back lit his face. In spite of my initial blindness, the intense tone of his voice triggers everything in my body to instinctively and immediately ready itself for action. My pupils constrict and I can see through the blinding sun to the features of his contorted face as he yells in a quick staccato voice filled with aggression. And somehow, with powers I did not know I had, I spring up from my prone position on the ground to standing on my feet. I am ready to run.
My initial thought was that there was some kind of emergency. As I came to my senses, I quickly realized that we were the ones in need of help.
The next few moments in my memory are like a frenetic scene out of a Guy Ritchie movie, sped up in some places and incredibly slow in others with dramatic close ups of the most dangerous aspects of the threat:
An angry face yelling angry words in a language I didn’t understand;
Another grabbing our knapsack and my husband running after him with pure rage on his face, a look I had never seen before… and never want to see again.
The man with the gun fires a shot into the ground and I see the sand fly upwards in response. In my mind’s eye the shot explodes just in front of my feet.
My husband falters but keeps going after him and I am screaming for him to “STOP! STOP! STOP!”
In that moment, I did not fear my own death. Nor did my life flash in front of my eyes as is often portrayed in movies as the main character falls towards their demise. In that moment, I feared for only one thing: the death of my future with the man I had waited a lifetime to meet.
What flashed through my mind was not my past, but of stories of others’ who had survived the horror of witnessing their spouse murdered during the honeymoon. Was this going to be my story too? Was this the moment when my life would take a dramatic turn? The moment that would leave me traumatized and would forever be a marker by which I judged the ‘before’ and ‘after’?
I knew why my husband was desperately trying to retrieve the knapsack. It had nothing to do with the money, the keys and the papers for our rental car, or the key to the home where we were staying. He was running after our camera, which contained the memories of all of our experiences of our honeymoon up until that point.
I kept screaming for my husband to stop because I didn’t care about having a reminder of the wonderful moments we shared in the past. All I could think about was keeping him with me so we could continue to create new moments of wonder in the present and future.
It was the bullet that whizzed past my husband’s left ear that finally got him to stop. The man with the gun, aimed it at his face and then, with a steady hand and arm outstretched, moved the gun slightly to the right and fired.
What followed in the wake of encountering this dark side of humanity was a surprising demonstration of love, caring and concern from the most unlikely places.
As we ran for the safety of the restaurant, screaming for help at the top of our lungs, we were met by a tall French man who told us that he caught the entire robbery on video. He had been filming his friends kite surfing when he heard our screams. When he saw what was happening, he immediately started filming our assailants in the act and continued filming them as they escaped into the bush with our knapsack.
Among the mixture of locals and tourists at the restaurant was a young man who took it upon himself to escort us back to the mainland and act as translator in our initial interactions with the police. This young, brown faced man in a green t-shirt, was somehow able to communicate with me in spite of the fact that I do not speak a word of Portuguese and he could not possibly have any familiarity with the Spanglish that was coming out of my mouth. To this day, our mutual understanding remains a mystery. And quite honestly, his calming presence and willingness to stay with us earned him guardian angel status in my eyes.
He accompanied us on the ferry back to the mainland, and woke up the village police who were literally sleeping at the time. As the village police got dressed (and I know this because they were putting on their long pants, socks and shoes in front of us), the roar of a speeding vehicle and the loud screech of tires rudely disturbs the lazy pace of the scene in front of us. The military police have arrived.
With the vehicle barely stopped, four large, muscular men in full fatigues, carrying big machine guns jump out of the vehicle and come running towards us. And I find my heart in my throat once again for the second time that afternoon.
They are intense, and are clearly not impressed with the village police who are taking far too long to respond to this situation. They drive their truck onto the ferry and my husband, the guardian angel, and I head back to the scene of the crime.
Once we arrive on the shore, the military police get back in their jeep and are motioning for our angel to go with them. He backs away refusing to join them, to which they respond with a mixture of frustration and disbelief. My sense was that he did not want to witness anything he would want to forget. Sure enough, we later learned that when the military police are involved, their approach is to shoot first and ask questions later. Not wanting to waste any more time, they sped off into the bush on the hunt for the criminals who stole our knapsack.
In the hours and days that followed this dramatic event, the people in this little community continued to astound us with their generosity and demonstrations of care. The developer of the time share community where we were staying was one notable person whose efforts to take care of us went above and beyond anything we could have expected.
He anticipated that we would not feel safe going home that night while they were in process of changing the locks. So he offered us a room in his hotel down the road and fed us at his expense. But more than that, he sat with me and listened as I told my story and allowed me to cry.
He was also there for us as a driver, and translator as we went into town to file an official police report and in all further dealings with police and the investigators assigned to the case.
That night after he dropped us at the hotel, my husband and I talked for hours in spite of our exhaustion. We shared every thought, every feeling we experienced throughout the ordeal. As a psychologist, I knew it would be important to not hold anything back. The time to process this was now, not later, so that we could move on without having to relive it repeatedly in our minds in the future. I was determined that we would not leave this place as victims of trauma, and this was not going to take away from the amazing experiences we had up until that point, or those that we were yet to experience in the days ahead.
One of the questions we contemplated was whether we should leave or continue with our vacation as planned. As we reflected on everything that happened, we could not help but be moved by the kindness of strangers and the support this community had given to us. In spite of having an encounter with the dark side of humanity, we made the choice to focus on the love that we received and decided to stay.
Believe it or not, the authorities actually took this case seriously. In fact, the chief of police for the biggest city in the region got involved and openly expressed his determination to find the men who did this.
Why would they care so much about a stolen knapsack belonging to a couple of Canadian tourists? Because the knapsack was not just a knapsack; its theft at gun point from tourists who would undoubtedly tell the story when they returned home, represented a threat to the entire community.
This little place where nothing happens had built its reputation on being a safe heaven, an oasis, in a country too often plagued by chaos. So yes, they had a vested interest in keeping the peace. As they should, because the benefits to them went beyond the monetary. They were fiercely protective of their way of life. They were passionate about their community. They were courageous enough to care.
Caring and acting on that care was clearly demonstrated by people from all walks of life. From the store owner across the street from where our rental car was parked who organized to keep watch over the vehicle throughout the day and night, to the chief of police of the small community who was moved to tears as he held our hands and expressed how sorry he was for what we had been through.
In the end, they caught the three men. Between the video, the community banding together, and the police, they caught the men who did this and our camera was returned.
The people in this community became our heroes and defenders and it was their actions of compassion that ultimately healed our hearts.
It was a little place where nothing much happens. And they knew what it would take to keep it that way. They lived with compassion. They cared but were not passive in their caring. They embodied the true meaning of that word: with feeling, with care, with passion, together. This is what it takes to build and nurture a strong community.
As I write this in the midst of the summer of 2016, it feels like the world is crumbling all around us. The politics of division fuelled by fear are inescapable as is the news of yet another mass shooting, or attack on citizens by those given the authority to serve and protect.
After Orlando, Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, I wake on the morning of July 8, 2016 to hear about the shooting and killing of several police officers guarding a peaceful anti-violence protest in Dallas; the act is assumed to be in retaliation for the killing of black men at the hands of police. I read in a state of near disbelief, and I lose it. The tears start streaming down my face. No amount of deep breathing or meditation is going to be a salve for the ache in my heart. And as I cry, I realize that this is what I need to feel.
I cry not only for the victims and their families but also because it feels as if we, who are committed to having a positive impact on the world, are losing the battle.
And then, I come back to thinking about that little fishing village in Brazil and their compassion and courage to act boldly and decisively to protect, and nurture their community. And my sense of hope returns because I can see the answer through their example. The only way to counter the chaos and the temptation to retreat into passivity is to fight even harder to build a strong sense of place, to make meaningful connections and to contribute. To care like your entire life depends on it. Because it does.