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You deserve to live, her voice echoed in my swirling mind.
Aqua water rushed all around me, the sky raced above. Gunmetal gray clouds joined together like soldiers readying for battle. Herds of bison munched sage grass nearby.
I cried out. No human ears received my calls for help.
You don’t want to die out here, I heard. They’ll never find your body.
You deserve to live, I heard again. Then, celestial wisdom spoke: Don’t panic. If you panic, you’ll drown.
I breathed deeply. I was caught, uncontrollably, racing down the Lamar River in a torrent I should’ve anticipated. I knew better.
I tried to touch bottom, again and again. Every time I reached for the bottom, my waterlogged backpack weighed me down and sucked me further under the racing deep waters.
There was no choice in the moment but to listen to the wisdom I was hearing. There was no decision I could make beyond honoring my intuition.
I didn’t die in the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park that day. (I didn’t see the wolves I’d gone to see, either.) Instead, I pulled myself out after being swept downstream for nearly a mile, and contemplated remaining to finish my three-day backcountry solo adventure, getting hit by lightning, marauded by wandering bears, or making a break for it and dashing back to the safety of my car two miles away.
I opted for running, an impulsive choice when lightning is zapping trees half a mile nearby. I had shed the clothing not on my back, camping gear, and anything extraneous that would weigh down my run back to safety. It still weighed about 90 pounds, soaked with every drop of water from that Lamar River. The gushing rain only added to the burden.
I plucked a tuft of bison fur from one of the wallows as I rushed by, jamming it into my North Face hiking pants. I wanted a symbol of strength and item of survival, and the bison could not be more representative of just that kind of viscerally wild struggle for life and death.
In the two-mile dash back to the trailhead, I encountered another herd of blissfully grazing bison. Off in the distance stood a photographer with his tripod catching images of the lightning and oncoming rainbow. I called out to him:
Can you help me cross, or at least keep an eye out, if I get swept again downstream?
He abandoned his shooting bison with his Pentax and ran to the riverside. I ambled across again, only to be swept downstream one more time.
As I floated swiftly down the confluence, he ran alongside, hand outstretched.
I couldn’t reach his hand, but thought screaming for my dear life would get the job done instead.
I repeated my new survival tactic while my new friend ran desperately along the riverbank: When struggling for ground and drowning, keep reaching for the boulders until you get a grasp. Then, pull yourself up to safety of shore, dry yourself off, and pray hard to live into the next moment.
Needless to say, I reached the safety of those life-saving boulders a second time. No bison charged me (they were the least of my worries), and I flagged down a truck driven by a pair of sympathetic locals.
As they admonished my tourist stupidity for crossing the Lamar River during high runoff season, their voices were silenced by the louder one in my own head:
You deserve to live.
Since that fateful day in July, 13 years hence, I’ve given the idea of deserving much consideration. The celestial wisdom I heard that afternoon as I was swept rapidly downstream in the Lamar River was delivered to me in a therapy session months before. Being born in a working-class family to an alcoholic French immigrant father, I felt no more deserving of the abundance and ease in life than I did to take a seat in the Oval Office.
I’ve carried that sense of being undeserving with me for most of my life. It took me 44 years to understand on an intrinsic level, that I, too, deserved to live.
I finally got it. There wasn’t anyone around to save me that afternoon. I’d recently jumped off the cliff of a secure life into an abyss of uncertainty. There were no fellow backpackers nearby, no guy with a camera crouching behind the sagebrush ala an episode of “Survivorman.” If I was going to live to feel into what I deserved, I had to pull myself out of that river, one water-soaked, rushing gesture at a time. I had to keep reaching for those beautiful slate-gray granite boulders, and once found, pull myself up and get myself out of the deep rushing waters before they took me down forever.
Getting what we deserve in life is different than feeling entitled. It’s about self-esteem. I didn’t truly appreciate what that looked like, just how low mine really was, and how much my identity revolved around serving others in order to have any measure of self-esteem. I had to learn for myself what I deserved without actually doing. I learned that afternoon that simply being was enough in the moment. I also learned that self-reliance was as real as it was strong in my existence, and I could feel confident in my own ability to save myself, separate and distinct from others upon which I had previously depended.
And yet, I realized, that sharing a life with others in a world just so very overwhelming on any given Tuesday is a blessing and a nice thing to have, indeed.
Taking up a life of service and working in order to feel like a valid being in the world is a valuable human contribution. But first, I had to learn that I still had value, even if I were simply sitting soaking wet under a Wyoming sky staring at a herd of bison, one gorgeously feral beast at a time. I still have that tuft of bison fur in my North Face pants, and when I feel undeserving in a world feeling less compassionate by the day, I take it out and fondle it and remember that big, open Wyoming sky, and feel my body floating swiftly down the Lamar River.
And then, I sit down on the closest granite boulder close to my home, close my eyes, and smile.