The Iceberg Effect

Resilience is obstinacy in the face of adversity. It relates to our ability to resist being overwhelmed even when we face the storm alone. Facing storms alone is so much more fun anyway. It tests our limits of perseverance in ways that reveal our true strength, or at least it hints at what we are truly capable of. That wouldn’t be possible if we always had someone by our side to face the storms, because then, we’ll grow to learn how much we can bear if only we have someone to bear it with.

We go through life chipping away at icebergs but assume that we’re carving snowmen instead. Each effort is intended to yield a specific and immediate result. Those of us that have progressed beyond our formative years realise that reality has struck no such bargain with us, so we strive a little more after each setback, knowing that success often hides behind a few setbacks, or more accurately, failures. So we give it a try, and another, and another, until eventually we give up in the belief that our energies will be better expended elsewhere.

Giving up though, is rarely that simple. If the goal we courted was important to us in ways that would define our happiness, giving up becomes a bitter pill to swallow. But in the face of inevitable failure, we assume that it’s the only option to save our dignity. That’s when we convince ourselves that we’re building snowmen, rather than chipping away at icebergs.

The iceberg analogy has been used to describe many positive and negative aspects about life. Quite popular in the meme culture of late is the use of the iceberg to demonstrate the pinnacle of success rising above the water, while a huge amount of effort, perseverance, and some failure rests beneath the surface that no one seems to recognise. It is not an untrue analogy either, but there is a different perspective that I believe is equally important, if not more so.

Think of the iceberg as a problem you’re facing, but not just above or below the surface. Instead, the iceberg in its entirety represents the challenges we face in life. Now consider what happens to the bottom of the iceberg as we chip away at what we can see on the surface. Each time we shave away the top, the bottom rises a little more making it seem as if the top is never-ending. So we keep ridding ourselves of the surface layer hoping that nothing more will rise in its place, only to be presented with more each time, until eventually we grow despondent and stop chipping away.

What we fail to recognise in that process of chipping away is that each time the top was removed, even if only a little, it made way for the underlying issues to surface, and each time the underlying issues surfaced, it reduced the weight of what was beneath the surface, out of sight, until eventually so little (if any) remained, that it made the iceberg irrelevant. What once was an iceberg suddenly becomes an ice cube.

Being able to chip away at that iceberg would also be so much easier if we just moved it to warmer oceans instead of remaining anchored in the icy waters that sustained its creation to begin with. And that, simplistically, is how life presents its challenges to us.

The ocean is the environment we find ourselves in, each environment having its own share of toxicity or benefit depending on what we need to take from it. Remain in the surrounds that gave rise to our problems, and our problems will continue to grow larger than we ever will be, constantly overwhelming us and convincing us that trying to prevail is futile. Change environments and suddenly our perspectives are refreshed and solutions become easier. It reminds me of the prophetic analogy of the blacksmith and the perfume merchant. Spending your day with the blacksmith will never leave you perfumed.

Accepting our state may result in us finding comfort in the cold desolation of the confined spaces of the top of the iceberg. For some, a confined space is much more comforting  than the horror of having to venture beyond their comfort zone. In their case, icebergs are great, and so is being rooted to the spot. Unfortunately they hold others back because of the company they need on that iceberg. They become masters at making snowmen, as long as that snowman is on their iceberg.

I often wonder how many times did I stop chipping away at some of the icebergs in my life just as the final layers may have been surfacing before I gave up and moved on to new icebergs? It’s a question that could easily test our sanity, because we rarely find out in this lifetime when giving up was the wrong thing to do. The only comfort that I find in such deliberations is in knowing that my choices to leave, to abandon, or to simply stop caring about some icebergs was a conscious choice relative to what I was willing to tolerate at that point in my life. Where I realised later that I may have given up too soon, I accepted that I would have done no differently no matter how many times I could relive that moment, because the sum total of my life’s experiences, my emotional maturity, and my awareness of what was taking place would always be the same. The only thing I could do was recognise what it was that detracted from my decision being more informed, and be sure not to overlook that aspect again in future. I think that’s how icebergs melt without us having to chip as much.

Remaining in toxic settings, or relationships, while chipping away is often an unnecessary test of our resilience. What doesn’t kill us does not make us stronger, it only makes us more brittle. Eventually, we’ll discard opportunities that promise beauty while holding on to the remnants of what may have been simply because we focused on the iceberg, instead of the ocean.

[This is an incomplete thought process that has plagued my mind for weeks now. Hopefully this partial expression will lead to the clarity that escapes me at this time.]

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