Friday, February 23, 2007

Tip of the iceberg

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?

You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you

I know it makes no difference
To what you're going through

But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you...

I often think about the metaphor of “the tip of the iceberg”. It's a common phrase, and we all know it suggests there may be something huge, mysterious, and dangerous hidden from our view. But do we use that knowledge effectively? Does it make a difference?

The world weighs on my shoulders...

Over the course of a couple of years I participated in many earnest conversations about the future of humanity and the fate of our planet. I found it amazing, and frustrating, how often conversations among dedicated, like-minded people turned to anger and acrimony.

You sometimes drive me crazy...

After a while I learned to recognize the pattern. I learned to spot the icebergs and to predict their intersecting courses. I tried to warn folks. Like the familiar history of a certain ship, people would wave me off and say, "There's no iceberg out there. Even if there is, it doesn't pose a threat to me."

I know it makes no difference...

Icebergs are big, slow-moving, and ponderous. There's plenty of time to change course, to steer a conversation differently. But there's no iceberg out there. And even if there is, it's not a threat.

But I see the tip of the iceberg...


After a while all those colliding conversations begin to look the same to me. I see frustrated people standing on the tips of icebergs, shouting angrily, throwing snowballs at each other, wondering what happened. And they're far apart. Too far to talk, usually. Below the waterline the hidden parts of icebergs collide long before their tips ever meet.

But what am I to do?

Sometimes people declare, "You can't say this. You can't have that conversation. It just doesn't work." I can see why. But I find greater value in thinking of the situation this way: In what circumstances could we have that conversation? To whom can we say that? When, and where? In what circumstance is it safe to have that conversation?

It seems to me the important first step is to acknowledge the existence of the hidden part of the iceberg. Too often we try to talk about the tips of icebergs without recognizing the submerged assumptions, the accumulated history of feelings and memories below the surface. Even if we don't talk about those things explicitly, if we can at least acknowledge they exist, if we can recognize the rest of the iceberg and adjust to accommodate it, then we might have more satisfying dialog. Then we might have more effective, more productive dialog.

We might invite other people over to our iceberg. Or we might climb down from the tips of our personal icebergs and meet elsewhere. Sometimes we might mean saying, "Sure, we can talk about that, but not here." Or it might mean deciding, "This is better suited to a different audience." Mostly I think it means behaving as if we know the iceberg is there.

I see the tip of the iceberg...

I've seen the tip of the iceberg, and I've learned that acknowledging the rest of it does make a difference to what we're going through.


"I see the tip of the iceberg" quoted from the song, Distant Early Warning, lyrics by Neil Peart, Rush, Grace Under Pressure, 1984.

Photo by Ralph Clevenger, 1999

This is a follow-up to an earlier piece: Of icebergs, NPR, and language

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Two worth reading

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Changing Planes cover I've been planning to recommend Ursula K. Le Guin's delightful book, Changing Planes, since I discovered it a few weeks ago. The reward for procrastination is an opportunity to pair it with Jose Saramago's unusual book, The Cave.

Changing Planes presents itself as a sly travelogue, a collection of short stories that describe some of the planes of existence a traveler can reach after experiencing the peculiar combination of stress, boredom, and indigestion that occurs only in a modern airport.

The book's back cover blurb observes that Le Guin's stories of exotic places and peoples all reflect the here and now of 21st century life. Most notable for me were the perpetually annoyed and squabbling people of Veks, the reckless genetic experiments on Islac, the thoughtful people of Ansarac who took some bad advice but abandoned it for their own time-tested wisdom, and the sad holiday island of Great Joy.

While searching Le Guin's web site for supplementary links I noticed her recommendation of Nobel prize-winner Jose Saramago's books, Seeing, Blindness, and The Cave. The titles Seeing and Blindness caught my eye because I've written a bit myself about seeing and not seeing. Saramago's writing style may challenge us, but readers who appreciate William Faulkner's page-long streams of consciousness should be equally comfortable with Saramago's technique. What Saramago's charming characters discover deep within The Cave is both disturbing and liberating:

They are us!



The Cave and other books by Jose Saramago are available from Powell's and from local bookstores

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site is worth exploring

“We shall not cease from exploration...”
quoted from Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot