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What this Sundance film taught me about rescuing myself

In this Nov. 8, 2018 file photo a home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif.
Noah Berger, Associated Press

There’s a moment in “Bring Your Own Brigade,” one of this year’s Sundance documentaries, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

It comes about 20 minutes into Lucy Walker’s film about the recent spate of deadly California wildfires. The scene, a montage of phone footage, shows people in their cars desperately trying to escape the flames of the 2018 Camp Fire, the fire that would eventually burn Paradise, California, to the ground and kill 88 people.

Over the images, so vivid I could practically feel the heat, we hear the passengers’ frantic calls to 911:

“There are flames all around us; we can’t get out. Please, please send someone to rescue us.”

Their panic is palpable. But the dispatchers have only one message for them:

“There is no one to come help you right now. Please do anything you can to get out. There is no one to come help you.”

Just remembering those words makes my chest hurt again. It’s the kind of scene that sits in your mind, your heart, your gut. These people are us, of course. They could be any of us.

And yet, that phrase, “There is no one coming to help you” has stayed with me all week even beyond the film’s subject. For in a far less desperate and less life-threatening way, it hit me that the dispatchers are right: When it comes down to it, there isn’t anyone else coming.

I certainly thought I would be rescued years ago — that someone else would take me out of my current life and drop me into my imagined better one, the life where I would be saved from the agony of trying to make all of life’s hard decisions. After all, women have traditionally been the rescued — in movies, books, epic poetry — and although it’s 2021 and I loathe the capitulation that comes with someone “saving the day,” I think there has also been a naive part of me that also longed for what seemed in moments like the easy way out.

Now, I should be clear: I don’t need actual rescuing. I am not in any danger and I have a good life. But all of the decisions, the disappointments — the life stuff that I wish I could change but somehow, am unsure how — all of that can build up into the feeling that there is nowhere to turn. Have you ever felt like you’re standing at the bottom of the well, looking up at the blue sky and wondering when someone will drop the rope that will pull you out into the sunshine?

But if, as the dispatchers say, no one is coming, then really, it’s just me at the bottom of my imaginary well. I have to figure out my own rescue plan. For some of us, that could be a plan to get out of an ugly job, a relationship that’s gone bad, a mental illness that has become debilitating, a crushing life circumstance. And the obvious question is: how?

I spoke with a friend yesterday. A little backstory on him: About 10 years ago, he lost his daughter to a brain tumor. His wife followed about five years later, succumbing after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Just before she passed away, his partners at the company he had started and loved cheated him out of a whole lot of money, and he nearly lost his company just about the same time his wife died. There were a number of years when, if anyone needed rescuing from a dark place, he did.

But when we spoke, he was full of news about his latest projects — a book, two new films, some drawings, a lot of fun, goofy stuff. We spoke of mutual interests, new ideas, and yes, some talk about the past, too. The pain of all he has lived through certainly hasn’t gone away. But he isn’t stuck down in the well with it. He rescued himself by figuring out a mixture of things that enabled him to get out.

He would be the first to say that others have helped him immensely. I hope all of us can point to people in our lives whose love, support and endless cheering on have made our own efforts possible. But all the love in the world can’t save us if we don’t act.

And when we’re feeling stuck in that well, it’s terrifying to think that no one is coming. But — and my apologies for the overused word here — there is also something empowering in the realization, too. That’s what hit me this week. Sure, there is no one coming. So what am I going to do? How am I going to make my situation different?

I’m working on what that means to me. I have some pretty good ideas — surprise, surprise, actual effort is on the list. It also means developing my own personal rescue kit — for me, that means getting outside, reading good books, writing, feeding my curiosity and most importantly, loving and serving the people in my life. That kit looks different to everyone, and for some may involve professional help. But I have to do what I can to make my situation different. The help and love of others matters deeply, but I have to do it. You see, no one is coming. And that’s OK.