The Tip of the Iceberg

If you are naturally gifted with kindness, consideration, and charity, you might want to skip this one. But if (like me) you have to work at it, then saddle up!

I went to Hobby Lobby the other day to pick up some supplies for a seminary lesson. I felt a little out of place; there weren't many grown men in white shirts and ties shopping for their next craft project. My discomfort increased at check-out when I couldn’t work the credit card machine. On my third attempt, the nice young lady helping me at the register pushed the wrong button and had to get a manager to reset everything. As we stood there waiting, I realized a few women had lined up behind me. I turned with a smile and said,

“Sorry ladies, you might want to go to another register. You got in line behind a rookie and it looks like it’s going to be a minute.”

When I said they were behind a rookie, I was talking about myself. I use “rookie!” as a bit of an expletive when I make a mistake, and I am definitely a Hobby Lobby rookie. (Apparently I was supposed to push X for credit instead of debit.) Anyway, when I turned back to the young clerk, she began to apologize profusely:

“I’m so sorry. I just started last Saturday. I’m just learning.”

“Oh No!" I burst back. “I was talking about myself when I said rookie! I’m the one who doesn’t know what’s going on!” But as coworkers crowded around and the wait for the manager dragged on, it felt like a failed attempt to take back a cruel comment.

It was an unfortunate misunderstanding, but I hate to hurt someone’s feelings, especially by accident. This little blunder got me thinking as I drove away just how often we interact with people while knowing very little about their circumstances. I thought of icebergs and the popular fact that most of an iceberg is underwater and out of sight. Like icebergs, most of a person’s identity is hidden. We can’t see their upbringing, past decisions, or past experiences. We can’t see their strength or weakness, their pains, sorrows, hopes, or dreams. Most of everything that makes them who they are in the moment of interaction is hidden from our view, even with people we presume to know well. "In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can't see,” says the hymn. Because of our relative ignorance of one another, there's a natural tendency to overlay our own perspective (built from years of unique experiences) upon others. It's easy to project our own strengths, weaknesses, and experiences on others and therefore have unrealistic or even innappropriate expectations. We mistakenly assume people should know, understand, or do the things we know, understand, and do. 

In the ten years since I started teaching seminary, I’ve had profound reminders that I’m only seeing "the tip of the iceberg” with the people around me. Early on in my career I treated most of my students as if they were raised in circumstances similar to mine. I expected them to understand and act as I would’ve. I learned quickly that this isn’t the case. For example, when you find out on the last day of school that a young lady has struggled with depression and self-harm for years, you quickly revisit all your attempts to get her to get off her phone and study the scriptures.

I don’t mean to say everyone is floating around on a heap of depressing baggage, but I’ve learned time and time again that my ignorance (or filling in the gaps with my assumptions) is harmful. I become a useless or even damaging instrument for the Lord when I make such assumptions. 

Since serving as Bishop, I have had the sacred privilege of glimpsing "below the surface" of many individuals who have sought the Savior with my help. I’ve learned that at any given moment, the people around us (often appearing perfectly fine on the surface) are experiencing a vast array of challenges in their minds and hearts stemming from decisions and circumstances stretching back sometimes for decades. A crumbling marriage. A father losing his faith. Financial burdens. A painful disease.

These steady reminders motivate me to be more kind, thoughtful, and understanding, especially in a society where these attributes are vanishing from so many venues. Sometimes I read comment threads on the internet (Facebook, Youtube, NPR.org, it doesn’t really matter where) and my heart just hurts at how assumptive, inconsiderate, and rigid we can be with each other. We can be so quick to defend ourselves and condemn others!

I’m talking to myself first and foremost, but couldn’t we just be a little nicer? A little less assuming? More quick to forgive and to justify rather than judge others? So much of the Savior’s teachings revolved around our personal interactions, and modern prophets echo His plea, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31).  In a powerful April 2006 priesthood talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley wondered: 

Why do any of us have to be so mean and unkind to others? Why can’t all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it! It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children.

A pessimist would conclude that we should all just stay home so we can avoid accidentally popping anyone’s bubble. I fear in some ways our society is heading in that direction with our fixation on political correctness. But so much of political correctness is egocentric. Rather than retreat into our safe places, the Savior has a better way:

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:25). For some, this is a gift. For me, this is a goal. I’ve found (as much as I’ve been able), when I lose myself in the concerns of others, a number of positive results occur:

  • I assume less and give the benefits of the doubt more
  • I am more patient and kind
  • The spirit of discernment allows me to glimpse “below the surface” to see how I might be of service
  • Individuals seek my help and confide in me when appropriate
  • I more consistently remember that God is the only one who sees the whole iceberg

Think about that for a second. God is the only one who sees the whole iceberg. As the world and the Kingdom continue to drift from each other, this truth will become increasingly important. We might not be a be able to stem the tide of snap judgments or the “my way or the highway” attitude permeating our culture, but we don’t have to embrace it either. We can choose to be thoughtful, kind, unassuming, and prone to forgive. We can choose to treat others the way we hope the Savior treats us. Might we suffer for this? Sure. But if we do we're in good company. After all, He who taught, "The merciful shall obtain mercy," was spit upon, scourged, and crucified for his kindness.