Wells are both dark gloomy places and sources of that which is life sustaining. When I think of wells, my mind's eye projects a moving picture of the well on our family's hobby farm back in the 70s. I would lie on the moist clover next to the wooden frame and peer down into the depths, feeling the cool humid air rise up to meet my face. Wooden cribbing shored up the sides to support the dirt walls. My eye linked the mossy board rows one by one until they met with the inky black water far below. The depths called to me in some way, but I never had the courage to descend the ladder that was nailed to the side, in part because I was told never to go down there.
At age twelve my father allowed me to do chores that needed truck support to be accomplished. Driving our '65 GMC, I hauled stones, fence posts, or bales and I loved it because it made me feel grown up, more like a man. One day while bringing a load of manure to the garden, I trimmed the corner too close to the well and a wheel fell in, breaking through the boards that covered the hole. When I felt the drop as the steering wheel lurched to the right, and my heart sank. I walked around the yellow rust-dotted vehicle to view the wheel hanging in the air above the blackness, truck frame supported by the ground around the hole. The problem seemed insurmountable. I walked with dread over to the barn where Dad was doing a repair and said to him sheepishly, "Dad, the back right wheel of the GMC is in the well." Without looking up from what he was doing he said, "You got it in there, you get it out." Shocked that he wouldn't help, I walked back to the truck crestfallen, but the knowledge that I had to fix the situation myself allowed me to look at the problem anew.
With care, I performed what felt like a miracle. By lifting the truck up with the bumper jack and putting sturdy planks under the back wheel I was able to drive the rig out of the hole. I remember feeling pride and a sense of accomplishment. This experience was one of the greatest gifts my father bestowed on me, and shows his depth of wisdom. To this day, when I feel something is impossible, I remember being twelve and solving this challenge with creativity and ingenuity. By descending into the depths of the problem, I drew out a solution. The well had a very important lesson for me.
There are other wells. One runs through the core of my being. Like most deep holes, this one has historically been dark, gloomy, and terrifying. There has been a crying sound coming from the depths, and it has felt lonely and cold. For most of my life, I have tried to block it out. I put a pump house on the well to insulate and hopefully muffle the mournful sound, and yet it was still in my awareness, like an overdue appointment. I asked the women in my life to do something about the crying but they couldn't hear it. I wanted them, as the nurturing ones, to make the situation better. I wanted them to descend into my well and nurture the sobbing child that resided there. But since they couldn't hear it, it was not real for them; the plaintive lonely boy was known only to me. Like my father many years ago, they have all said, "You need to fix this one on your own." As a male, I only had the skills I needed to fix mechanical problems. Boys don't learn how to nurture.
So, I descended into my well. It took all of the skills around managing fear and pain that I have spent a lifetime accruing in other arenas. I also had to ignore the inadvertent lesson I had been taught about wells as a child: the directive not to go down them. I went deep inside, descending further than I ever thought possible. I took light to illuminate my way, which made the journey less impending. On a damp, dreak ledge far from any ambient light, I found a small boy huddled alone and sobbing. I picked him up. He was cold and shivering from having been left down there so long. I fed him, changed his clothes and held him in my arms, comforting him until he felt safe enough to fall peacefully asleep. As a toddler, he fell into this dark place of loneliness since everyone in his life, while struggling to survive themselves, was unable to care for him. Ever since, he had been there wishing someone would hear him. It was I who ignored him, feeling unskilled and too scared to help. The problem seemed insurmountable, but all I had to do was trust that by descending into the depths, I would draw out solution. Simply nurturing the small boy part of myself healed the hole and the experience now sustains me.
In the past, I avoided the deep sense of loneliness in my core by muffling it. I busied myself with "manly" things like climbing and mountaineering to try to project the perception that I was strong and capable. In so doing, I denied the sadness at my core. I had been inhumane to a part of myself. I was convinced that I did not know how to attend to this most vulnerable part of me. I told myself I did not have the skill. As a climber I had often ascended into the unknown, trusting that what I needed would arrive. Amazingly, holds, gear placements, and skills I had no idea I possessed emerged. All scary situations require trust. All adventures teach me this, even the adventure deep into my emptiness.
Human beings need to be strong and capable. We also need to know how to nurture, especially the parts of ourselves that are the most vulnerable. Taking the time to hear ourselves is the first step, answering the call is the next, and the courage to be fully human is the third.
Our journey is ours alone. Others can be connected to us like the climbers are with the rope, but we have to make the moves ourselves. There is no top roping.