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Below the Surface


I read somewhere that about 8/9 of an iceberg is below the surface. That, I guess, is what makes it so potentially dangerous for ships at sea. I find this iceberg image to be a fitting metaphor for so much of what underlies human choice. Our actions and reactions, the conclusions we draw from a situation, the words we choose to speak – are consequences driven from a complex mixture of the immediate situation and our prior experiences. We are not WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) creatures. Much is hidden below the acts or words.

I think a lot about iceberg imagery when I detach and reflect on my own actions. I have had, in almost every way measurable, a fortunate life so far. Except in one area. I’ve had considerably more than an average portion of physical pain. Twenty-five years ago, during a trip to Indonesia, I picked up a mysterious illness that left me with constant flu-like symptoms. It took nearly 8 years to return to normal. The first two years were the worst. I had to work sick every day. Fatigue, body aches, low-grade nausea. No definitive cause was ever determined. We get cranky after a few weeks of illness. It’s difficult to imagine it in years. And now, for the past three years, I’ve had to deal with significant acute, localized, continual pain. At best I’m functional. At worst even Percocet can’t cover it. Pain is one subject, I’m sorry to say, I can write about with authority. A decade’s worth. Most people have no idea what it is like. When I have conversed at times with others who have also had a lot of pain in their lives, we agree that the only way to really know about it is through experience.

So why do I tell you this, if not for an underhanded bid for sympathy, which I don’t want or particularly deserve? It’s simple. Every life experience can be a teaching opportunity. One might think that experiencing chronic pain might produce wisdom, patience, etc. Well … maybe, but I think the personal growth benefits of experiencing prolonged pain are far outweighed by the negatives. Nevertheless, one valuable insight I have acquired is a much better recognition how one’s visible actions – the above-water part of that iceberg – are so often driven from experiences and feelings hidden below. You can probably hypothetically see the logic of it. But pain has provided me repeated, irrefutable lessons of how frequently disconnected one’s visible action can be from underlying invisible drivers. Left unrecognized it can also whipsaw you into behaving badly for reasons you might not even understand yourself.

Doctors know that their work involves two steps. First they must correctly diagnose. Only then is the choice of remedy likely to be effective. And our internal pain can be the driver of bad decisions and external actions in situations not obviously correlated to the real cause. Understanding the hidden tie-in is the first step toward remediation.

There is a deep frustration buildup when you hurt all the time. It can spill over and you find yourself saying or doing things you never would otherwise – but for the pain having its wearing effect. Even when it remains under sufficient control the anger and frustration wells up perilously close to the surface. That it often can be held back doesn’t negate its reality or power.

I see this constantly via mundane examples in my daily life. I come into the kitchen and it’s a mess. My son has been cooking – hours ago – and hasn’t lifted a finger to clean up. I’m tired of loading that damn dishwasher. But wait. Why am I really upset? He’s a good kid and usually gets around to the clean up. Truth is the pain – that continual pain – is having its inevitable wearing effect and I’ve covered the real reason for being upset with a faux façade of righteous indignation. It’s really about the pain, not the dishes.

Sometimes in our lives, of course, it is about the dishes. But far too frequently, and far too often unrealized, it’s about the pain. My personal pain examples are primitive, visceral and in a way, easy to connect the dots. Which is why I’ve reluctantly used my experience as an example. It’s not too hard to see how physical pain can have a detrimental effect in causing us to behave badly in unrelated situations.

But the general label of “pain” can also apply in much less obvious and deeply complicated ways. Not everyone grows up in a loving home. Not everyone is good looking, smarter than the competition or born into affluence. Or we might be physically challenged. Perhaps not visibly handicapped but we might have to live a lifetime as a brittle diabetic or predisposed to severe depression. “Normal”, in our world I’m afraid, is not very normal. There’s always something. And those somethings usually hurt. The whole world suffers from various subtle forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

My mother was widely recognized as a good person. At her funeral there were multiple testimonies to her many acts of kindness and hospitality. So much so that the man providing a vocal solo – who did not know her – commented before beginning to sing that he could only wish that such declarations might be given at his funeral. But my mother suffered all her life from a sense of inadequacy. And I believe some of her “good deeds” were partly motivated by a deep need for approval. This, of course, doesn’t negate their value, or her goodness. But I knew she always felt that her mother never really loved her. Another sister – Amber – was the favorite. She was pretty, my mother was plain. My mother felt consistently demeaned by her mother while growing up. Now whether my grandmother was “bad” or whether my mother took some mixed signals wrongly, is impossible for me to ever know. And it doesn’t matter. That’s how my mother felt. And the tragedy is that she never got over it. We took care of my mom the last month of her life, as she was dying of cancer. The night before she died I sat with her and she talked out of her head. Her conversation was with Amber. “Why Amber, does momma like you more? What have I done?” The tragedy I witnessed was how my mother – a very good person – lived her whole life and then died, without ever getting resolution to the hurt she suffered as a child. Pain. It drives us in ways that can be externally unrecognizable. The iniquity of the “fathers” really can be transmitted to the children – perhaps to the third and fourth generation.

How then does this tie into my Christian experience? Specifically, where does sin enter in? It might seem to some that I’ve been making a subtle case against personal responsibility. The “devil made me do it”, with pain being the Satan-surrogate in my case.  I don’t think I am trying to evade anything. Seeking to understand behavior doesn’t necessarily mean justifying it. What I would say first is that we live our lives in a complicated and “uneven playing field”. Some within our faith community treat sin as straightforward to define and hence to recognize. They see a black-and-white world: the Bible clearly defines sin, God has given us access to the power to be overcomers and He expects results. But I see far more complexity.

The issue of sin and overcoming also takes the iceberg shape, it seems to me. I defy anyone to unambiguously define what sin is and isn’t. I think the great majority of situations can be thought through to gain sufficient clarity, but not close to 100%. And if we don’t know precisely what is acceptable or not, we obviously risk failing to have 100% success. My observations about the complexity and separation between cause and action illustrates the challenge – I would even say impossibility – of reducing sin to something algorithmically definable.

This doesn’t mean I can now happily throw up my hands and “sin” with impunity because, after all, who’s to say what sin really is? But it does mean that I can recognize the mess I have been placed into, which isn’t my fault, realize the intricate web of underlying factors that contribute to my above-the-surface actions and begin by taking irrational guilt off my back. Further, I should never view God adversarially. For “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13). If I want to cooperate with that arc, that God-initiated and sustained direction, I can choose to do so. Daily. Then the pain-driven sub-optimality we each experience in its myriad forms need not produce self-condemnation. It just is what it is. Messy, multifaceted, and can be understood diagnostically, so that God can do that work in us which eventually can result in the life we long for, and the life God aspires for us.

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