In 2013, a 15-year-old named Davion Navar Henry Only stood before a church congregation and asked for someone, anyone, to adopt him. He had bounced around the foster care system since birth and was now making a desperate bid for a place to belong.
It was a heartbreaking story that quickly went viral as millions reacted to the teen’s plea to end the pain of having neither home nor family.
Why did his tale strike such a chord? And why does it hurt so much to be deemed “unwanted”?
The answer has to do with how we’ve evolved. We are wired to crave connection because historically we’ve been much more likely to survive and thrive when operating as part of a group. In the days when we foraged and hunted, we quite literally had each other’s backs. Conversely, being excluded from group life was the equivalent of a death sentence.
Today, being excluded may not carry the same types of risks, but it still has the power to leave deep scars. Without a group identity, we perceive the world as a more dangerous and unpredictable place. We shift into a state of constant alert, sending stress levels soaring. As a result, physical and mental health suffers. This sense of disconnectedness can also start a downward spiral in which we disengage in return or turn to negative behavior to deal with the pain.
Research has found that social rejection and physical pain activate similar regions in the brain – and those instances of rejection seem to carve deeper channels in our memory than physical pain can. Our brains react even when we witness social ostracism happening to others. It’s what allows us to respond on such a deep level to Davion’s tale, even if we’ve been fortunate enough not to share such struggles.
Creating a Shield Against Rejection
While feeling unwanted can wound, its opposite can shield. In a study of more than 12,000 adolescents, a sense of belonging in both the school and home environment was found to be the strongest protection against risks such as substance use, emotional distress, suicidal thoughts and violence. Building on that, researchers in a 2012 study set out to find ways to buoy that feeling of belonging. They focused primarily on African-American students who might be expected to face real or perceived stereotypes in their daily interactions, asking them to write down their core values – the things that mattered to them most.
What they discovered was this simple process of self-affirmation armed the students against rejection. Their feeling of deserving a place in their environment was no longer contingent on others’ acceptance but on their own feelings of worth. Rather than shut down when they encountered perceived rejection, the students were more able to keep it in perspective and, thus, more able to grow and learn.
In Search of a Happy Ending
With his speech before a church congregation, Davion Only underwent his own process of self-affirmation, speaking nervously but from the heart of the things that mattered to him and his desire to claim them. “He was asking for someone just to love him, and that’s a human right – to be loved,” said his former caseworker Connie Going in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
His plea led to thousands of offers to help, and last spring, Davion went to live with a minister and his family in Ohio. But that attempt at a forever family came to an abrupt end when Davion got into a fight with one of the minister’s children and was sent back to Florida’s foster care system.
His story is a reminder that the accumulated scars of rejection do not heal easily, and the sooner we can reach out to those who are hurting, the better. Close to 400,000 children remain in foster care waiting for homes, and many more people of all ages struggle with the label of “unwanted” – those with mental illness, those whose physical ailments isolate them, those who are elderly and alone. Creating a healthy society means making room at the table for all.
For Davion at least, there appears to be a happy ending. On April 22, his former caseworker officially becomes his adopted mother, a move Going says she initially avoided so as not to stand in the way of his quest to find a home. Davion, now 16, has already moved in with Going and her three children, who are rapidly helping to fill the voids in his life. “I want him to know that he is truly loved … and that he doesn’t have to be perfect,” Going said in a video chronicling her new son’s story. “He just has to be Davion.”