A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a quiet moment with my two-week-old nephew, who was sleeping, cradled in my arms. We were sitting on the balcony watching the sun rise into the morning sky, when a sudden disruption ensued. A dog just below, peering upwards, spotted us and began to bark incessantly. I panicked, knowing this growling, howling beast would jolt my nephew out of his tranquil sleep. I didn’t want him to start howling, too! I tried to shush the dog: “Quiet. Silence. Pipe down. Ferme la bouche. We’re not your enemies!” That didn’t work. I tried barking back, attempting to show myself more ferocious than the dog, to gain silence by intimidation (I’m glad no one saw this!). Anyways, this odd tactic didn’t work either, so my nephew and I went inside. The dog wandered away after a few minutes, which allowed us to resume our morning moment on the porch. I started thinking: Why was this dog barking? I’ve encountered her many times over the years, and her first reaction to people is always to bark.
Dogs are meant to love and be loved by us. We’re meant to get along. With that dog, however, something was clearly amiss. She feared people. She was edgy, hot-tempered and defensive around us. I found myself musing about her “backstory.” What had happened in her past—her story—that made her so cranky and hostile? Had she been hit? Neglected? Abandoned? I don’t know, and I probably never will. But I do know that there’s a backstory—something that brought that bark into existence—that I don’t know.
You see, that dog was like an iceberg. There’s a little piece that I see, but there is a lot under the water that I don’t know about. That stuff under the water, though, has a lot to do with what I see above the water … in all of its unpleasantness.
I think people are the same way. I know I am. And my work as a pastor has pretty well verified that I’m not alone. We see bits of each other, but there’s a lot that’s beneath the surface. All that stuff under the water—our past, with all of its triumphs and agonies—has quite a bearing on the part of us that’s public.
What do I mean?
Take my friend Meredith. (All names are changed, in case you were wondering). She’s been so continually disappointed by the men in her life—her father, brother, and ex-boyfriends—that her default way of interacting with men is marked by a bristly and antagonistic demeanour. A guy who meets Meredith for the first time might very well think that he’s somehow inadvertently insulted her in their conversation. But it’s not really about him. Meredith, like all humans, is an iceberg. There’s stuff under the water—disappointment, pain, and confusion from the past—that is being projected into her present. This makes it hard for her to relate in a healthy way with others. Psychologists call present behaviours of this sort “defence mechanisms.” And so, like the dog, Meredith barks, even when she doesn’t know the person who she’s barking at.
One of the reasons I love Jesus, is that he knows that we’re icebergs. And he’s not scared to dive into the depths of our heart.
Or consider my friend Joey. He’s a box of laughs. A man of great quips and wit. He brings marvellous humour into any situation in which he walks, but his humour quite often drowns out the possibility of any serious conversation and connection. If Joey’s humour is the tip of his iceberg, I wonder what’s beneath the surface? Perhaps deep rejection and a record of believing that he can only but disappoint people. Disappointment and rejection hurt. Especially when the hurt comes from people whom we’re close to and care for. Nothing like constant humour to keep us from being hurt! And so perhaps humour is an indirect way of blocking confrontation with those deep, tragic lies that hover beneath the water in Joey’s iceberg.
We’re all icebergs. And our stuff under the water scares us.
Sometimes it scares the people who know us, too.
We don’t like to dive down, whether it’s in our life or the lives of our friends. But if we want to experience love—the real love that comes through knowing and being known—we have to look under the water.
One of the reasons I love Jesus, is that he knows that we’re icebergs. And he’s not scared to dive into the depths of our heart. He’s not turned off or frightened away by what’s down there. And more importantly, he’s not deterred by our exterior traits that emanate from the stuff under the water. When I’m abrasive and defensive for no apparent reason, Jesus looks past that to see the heart wounds and sorrows that have induced me to be abrupt and callous on the outside. When I’m prone to excessive humour and disingenuous light-heartedness, Jesus looks past that to see the little boy who is deeply scared of rejection or abandonment — so scared, that he’ll use whatever means necessary to keep relationally distant from other people.” I am so glad Jesus is like this. I’m so glad that when we bark at him, he doesn’t tell us to hush up. He doesn’t growl back at us. He sees past all that. And he has compassion. He is gracious even when we act like porcupines towards him.
There’s another thing about Jesus that makes me glad, too. When I encounter the compassion and graciousness of Jesus in spite of certain off-putting, self-protective qualities in my demeanour, it helps me to do the same towards others. His patience and insightful love enables me to love others with patience and insight. So when Meredith barks, I don’t feel the need to either to retaliate or disengage. I can be present and caring. Or when Joey enters comic mode, I am more motivated to seek genuine bonding with him, and to keep getting to know him for who he is. I like myself more when I am like this.
This is one reason that I want to spend more time with Jesus: His love makes me a better person. It helps me to more deeply know that we are icebergs, which is why we are sometimes barking dogs. It makes me a man who can better love those around me, even when they are prickly. And I trust that Jesus’ presence in the lives of others will help them to see me in like manner.