A person is a like an iceberg, the elder from my new church reminds me. You only see what is above the water, but there is a lot more to everyone underneath the surface.
Whether you learned about icebergs in elementary school or through watching the film Titanic, you are probably familiar with this analogy. This reminder, which Elder Clark shared 15 minutes before my shift at work started, was God-inspired information.
Fresh out of university classrooms and now two weeks old at my summer job at a youth shelter in the Northwest Territories, I was struggling to navigate the often-haphazard waters of working with peers between the ages of 15 and 24 experiencing homelessness.
Spending my summer in the place I now found myself had not been my original plan.
When I reluctantly brought my ideas for the summer before God one evening in prayer, I received a sense of uneasiness about forming plans closer to home and was told, Go. Having been in touch with a dear mentor living in Yellowknife earlier in the winter, I hesitantly began to look at options for heading up North. The details finalized divinely fast, beginning with my accommodations and ending with a job offer from the local emergency youth shelter. I signed the contract and arrived at the beginning of May in the land of birch trees and an eternal summer sun.
In coming to the Northwest Territories, I had expected to encounter challenges. I had not anticipated what they would be and how deeply they would shape my experience here in my new summer home.
I am someone who typically prefers knowing how best to approach a situation; however, if I’m honest, very little about this summer job has been intuitive for me personally. I have struggled to anticipate the needs and ensuing behaviours of the peers I encounter within my new role at the local emergency shelter whose situation appears vastly different from my own.
I struggle to read past the cloak of invisibility that keeps hidden what is written on the hearts of my clients. My clients can, at times, straightforwardly reference experiences of childhood abuse. The underlying physical, spiritual, mental and emotional currents stemming from their trauma continues to pull them down, driving their choices and threatening to trigger all-too-familiar cycles of addiction.
I only know what flashbacks and fetal alcohol syndrome mean on paper. When it comes right down to it, I find myself still learning the street names of illegal substances with the help of public health pamphlets. The translation of head knowledge to heart knowledge and my current life experience presents a steep learning curve.
In light of my current situation, Elder Clark’s iceberg analogy presents a powerful parallel to the human complexity I am encountering, holding a comforting accuracy for the reality I find myself in.
A couple hours into my first shift, after a conversation had gone sideways and an important detail was missed, I realize this visual of the iceberg does more than provide a context for understanding the experiences of my clients. This visual also uncomfortably resonates with me and my life.
If people are like icebergs, our long, glacial journeys to the ocean accumulate a lot of sediment unseen to our own eyes. Nature does not allow what hides beneath an iceberg to stay hidden: after ice calves into the ocean, it destabilizes as it starts to melt and it may roll over.
Suddenly in a new environment, I have to rely on skills and actions belonging to overlooked areas in my own heart. The rhythms of my job bring me face-to-face with insecurities and weaknesses lurking underneath the surface of my conscience.
For instance, understanding how to support my clients necessitates being present among them, observantly and patiently. This is not something new. My family would be at no loss of words to describe my ability to lose focus on “inconvenient” details due to my impulses of impatience.
Another example, at the risk of vulnerability: is being soft-spoken. This attribute is not very useful or effective when it comes to communicating with peers habituated to confrontation. While I thought this attribute made me more acceptable to others, I have discovered in this new environment that even my tone reveals my preference of using my voice to gratify. My disposition as a people-pleaser has come into full view.
Day shift by night shift, traversing life’s tense, choppy waters alongside my clients has become frequently destabilizing.
In the lingering cold of late May, I climb the hill overlooking the bay and gaze out at the ice, still locked around the formation of houseboats resting in the water. I think back to the sermon from the Sunday I had my conversation with Clark. Its topic had been the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” My pastor had paraphrased this as “Happy are you when you look within and find nothing to work with.”
My painfully thawing heart can relate to this. Confused with my own heaviness, weighed down by my own spiritual discouragement I have had to confront the truth that God comes to us in our poverty.
Leaning on my understanding is not only disobedient, but ultimately sets me on a collision course with what God has called me to do; it prevents me from effectively serving others. Yet God has lovingly placed me where He can thaw the depths of my heart, even the parts that I could not see were hard and cold.
The state of vulnerability is in actuality a state of grace. It is where Christ heals me. I am acutely struck with my own need for deliverance; I increasingly wonder at how He cast out demons and cured people on an ordinary day.
I continue to pray that I would long for this personal, compassionate healing. As I receive strength, the veil over the everyday miracles around me lifts.
The laughter around the shelter’s dinner table fills my heart. Checking food expiry dates and keeping track of who is in the building sharpens ability to retain details. The challenge of appropriately addressing issues exercises my voice.
My job will never be smooth sailing. As my clients undergo their own destabilizing journeys, inner turmoil can surface unexpectedly and angrily. It is only with the transparency lent by the perspective of grace that I can interpret what lies beneath the upheaval and respond in a fair yet loving way. I am still learning how to do this well. At times, I am called to forgive; at other times, I need to ask for forgiveness.
These beloved peers challenge me to confront my brokenness. They make known to me my Saviour.
It is now the beginning of July and I return once more to my favourite spot overlooking the bay. The ice is gone, and I gaze at the water reflecting the light back into my eyes until my watch reads 15 minutes from the start of my shift. When I turn to descend the hill, the sun greets my face.