Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky houses one of the most poignant literary passages I’ve ever had the pleasure to read:
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Ruminating on this passage recently shaped a notion in my mind. The presumption of the “inexhaustible well” of life’s potential is a subliminal, self-preserving instinct. It’s a mindset of blissful privilege. It protects against panic-triggering awareness of one’s own vulnerability.
Behind any instinct, nature’s intent is rooted in survival. Certainly this seems a benevolent cause. But human survival instinct takes on many mitigated and illusive forms.
In America since its beginning, struggles for rights and resources have shaped the social landscape. Other nations have long known such struggles. Our mutual instincts regularly pit us against each other in a battle for resources. Instinct is enacted through our self-created social constructs: battle field, courtroom, corporate boardroom, street rally, online forum. Words themselves become actions in the effort toward instinct’s goal, whether it be a vicious tweet gone viral — or gentle words spoken quietly by a parent to a child. So instinct also brings us together: through love, collaboration, education, mutual protection.
In recent months, I’ve returned to favorite artistic, philosophical, and literary comforts with the hope of finding answers to questions that trouble me: about the future awaiting my children; about the changing face of social deviance and what it means to dissent; about the paradox of maintaining a compassionate worldview in a world where compassionate acts are increasingly marginalized.
Bowles’ concept of a perceived inexhaustible well lends poetry to a new perspective I strive to establish. My lifelong privilege has been to assume civil rights, social compassion, and humanitarian outreach are ingrained in our society — often challenged, never perfect, but ultimately taken for granted.
Yet I’ve recently come to understand that the well from which these things flow is not ethereal or passively divine. We comprise this well: each of us, together. Our actions, our words, our very thoughts. This particular well is only as inexhaustible as our hearts.