Imagine a picture puzzle.... It comes in a box filled with hundreds of pieces. When assembled, it may depict a landscape, perhaps, with large swatches of blue sea and blue sky. Imagine my mind is like one of those picture puzzles, and so is yours. I take one of those blue puzzle pieces, give it to you, and declare, “Here's a bit of the picture in my mind. I give it to you so you can see the picture I see.”

tip of the iceberg

[composite photo of an iceberg, both exposed tip and submerged bulk]

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...

In recent years I have participated in many earnest conversations about the future of humanity and the fate of our planet. I find it amazing, and frustrating, how often conversations among dedicated, like-minded people turn 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's no 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 very far apart. Too far to talk, usually. The hidden parts of icebergs collide below the waterline long before their tips ever meet.

But what am I to do?

Sometimes people declare, “You just 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 an 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

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike2.5 License