Sunday, April 24, 2011

the tip of the iceberg

The tip of an iceberg is a metaphorical sign of a relatively small symptom or problem that’s belying something far more troubling. Some fairly straightforward calculations involving the different densities of water and ice and the volume of the former displaced by the latter reveal that the tip of an iceberg is only about 10% of its mass. The rest of the iceberg, 90% of its mass, stays submerged – unseen, but its presence not unfelt. No, icebergs have been unable to successfully hide their true mass from us ever since that unforgettable historical event that has left such an impression on humankind. Am I referring to the actual sinking of the passenger liner Titanic or the cinematic depiction thereof? Well, I’m actually not sure which event has been of greater import to raising overall iceberg-awareness. But regardless of its origin, the awareness is here. Sink a reportedly unsinkable ship once, shame on you; sink a reportedly unsinkable ship twice, shame on me. (And in both cases, shame on the reporters.)

People will no longer allow themselves to be fleeced by the innocuous tips of icebergs, bobbing so blithely in the Atlantic, floating so freely in the Antarctic, and generally wading like smug assholes in the Arctic. We’re onto them, but they haven’t adapted their strategy to meet our growing suspicions and our simmering resentment, which makes us that much more suspicious and resentful. We take it as a slap in the face that they would have the gall, the cajones, the chutzpah, to continue drifting idly along, as if expecting a combination of anthropic pride and shady engineering to eventually, sooner than later, send another cruise ship on a direct collision course like some sort of overblown technological sacrifice. We no longer drown horses in tribute to Poseidon, but icebergs now have a perverse, mythological desire (which is perhaps redundant) for ships to sink in their honor – what is the source of such temerity? The inflatable lifeboats are spared and may float on to see another day, but the massive steel vessel itself is fated to be nothing more than an out-of-place edifice for sea creatures to somewhat ironically render a thriving ecosystem -- the icebergs demand that our watercraft mirror their own 9:1 ratio of submerged to exposed mass? Most humans cannot, and will not, stand for such outright disrespect.

I, however, don’t hold such suspicions or resentment. I mean, I’ll admit that it’s a little, I don’t know, annoying? cheap? underhanded? for icebergs to try to hide so much of their mass beneath the ocean surface as if it’s not blatantly apparent how much weight they’re really carrying. But I don’t consider it an act of aggression, passive- or otherwise. I see it as an Arctic inversion of a comb-over: instead of trying to give the appearance of something existing where it clearly doesn’t, icebergs try to give the appearance of something not existing where it clearly does. It’s more sad than anything else, really. And when you think about it, it’s not like icebergs are trying to hide something other than what they already flaunt. The tip of the iceberg might be only 10% of its mass, but the other 90% is still just ice. They’re not concealing some disturbing secret; the tip is not some red herring, luring us in with a false sense of security like the fleshy esca that innocently dangles in front of the gnarled maw of the anglerfish, almost irresistible to the inhabitants of the benthic zone whose habitat and undisciplined hunger seem to know no depths.

Maybe icebergs are just a little self-conscious is all. Maybe they’d rather be only 5% exposed; or less, 1%. Maybe they don’t want to be seen at all, too ashamed to no longer be part of something bigger, to no longer be glacial, and would prefer to sink down, down down; or melt away and just get it over with once and for all. We might never know how icebergs really feel: what their intentions, their dreams, their fears and their favorite colors are. But we will always know that as much as they try to hide the extent of their freezing mass, they are completely unable to hide their essence, which is singular and static: ice.

What of the others, then? Of the monoliths that show only 10% of their mass, but we can’t even be sure what the other 90% is? How much simpler life would be if we all followed the example of the iceberg, being exactly the same underneath the surface as on the surface itself. But this is rarely the case. (The timeless contrast of appearance against reality rears its ugly, metaphysical head and everyone starts to cringe; there are endless ways to frame a discussion about the relationship between the two, and some are decidedly... marginally... or at least hopefully less hackneyed than others.) Just as unknowable the true feelings of icebergs really are, we are even less capable of understanding the feelings, the essences or the inner workings of the people around us. Unlike icebergs, people can, and constantly do withhold, mislead, deceive and manipulate. These all sound like strong, highly blameworthy actions, but more often than not they’re subtle, subconscious or simple conventions that prop up day-to-day social interaction. The oblivious wreck who gives a brutally honest answer to the mandatory “How are you?” has become cliche, immortalized in the arsenal of reliable-but-harmless stereotypes that are oh so relatable and oh so foundational for so much sitcom non-humor. You never want to hear an honest answer when you ask someone how their day has been, but you’re also aware that if you answered the question honestly you would inspire just as much contempt and discomfort in your indifferent-but-polite interlocutor. We are always shut off to 90% of those around us, and we allow only 10% of ourselves to be known by others.

OK, maybe we’re not always being shut out by our peers and returning the favor, so to speak. Like it or not, it can be pretty impossible to shut out or get shut out by your family. And I think the whole process of getting to know, bonding with and befriending someone is an exercise in dropping your guard, being comfortable as yourself, and not feeling the need to keep whatever’s in the submerged 90% constantly hidden. Sometimes you take this for granted – that you’ve been friends with someone for so long that you just assume you know what they’re really like. This doesn’t mean you think you know everything about them or that there are no secrets or something like that – that’d be weird. Maybe the whole 90% isn’t submerged anymore, but there are at least some things staying underwater, as they should. But once you know them well enough you think you can say that what remains underwater probably isn’t so different from what started on and what gradually rose to the surface. But people are not icebergs, and there is never a guarantee about what might be hiding just below the surface.

And maybe this is why I sympathize, or at least don’t feel personally affronted by, icebergs and their hidden mass. No one wants to be friends with an iceberg because there’s nothing hidden to discover – it really is just ice. Icebergs are completely incapable of participating in any sort of meaningful relationship because they’ve got nothing to give and don’t want to take anything in return – just ice. When gliding along the surface of the sea on some gilded luxury liner, you run the risk of colliding with an iceberg – but it’s the collision, not the composition of the iceberg, that’s of concern, that causes you to sink. Colliding, however, is the whole point of relationships; the risk, then, is not the collision but the very nature of what you’ll be brushing up against. For you might be impervious or adapted to collide with what’s on the surface but you can never know whether what’s lying dormant underwater will be enough to tear through your hull and send you sinking down, down, down until you hit the ocean floor, soon enough becoming completely submerged yourself. And no one can say when or what or if anything will float back to the surface. People are not icebergs, but it's impossible not to freeze if you spend enough time underwater.


  1. graduation speeeeeech.

    seriously, so good.

  2. ...classic Winger speech to bring it home

  3. I had to read this for like the 5th time. So good, Dan.