In one of the courses I teach, we have been wrestling with the metaphor of living below the waterline. Most of us live our lives without giving much intentional thought to carving out the space necessary to do the work necessary to shape lives of purpose, meaning, wisdom and virtue.
Here is what I mean: Picture an iceberg. The ice we see above the water line represents the external, reactive self driven by such things as profit, pleasure, position and popularity. It is the part of ourselves that we work so hard to project outward to the world: our personality. Now, so many of us spend our entire lives focused on this part of our selves. This self is driven by the demands of the clock (the neurotic sense of deadlines and timelines), the need for approval, the currents of mood, and the reactive responses to what happens to us. The self above the waterline is willing to sacrifice the long-term in order to satiate short-term desires and pleasures, with the predictable outcomes of regret and ruin.
Now think of that great, hulking bulk that lies beneath the water line. This represents the hidden interior where the work of virtue, character, integrity and wisdom takes place. It is the part of ourselves where we wrestle with our shadow, spend time in sincere self-reflection and analysis, read mindfully, journal, pray. It is directed by a compass pointing towards one’s pre-determined sense of “true north”. It is the deep interiority of our being; the place where we take up the chisel and do the serious work of carving out a life of meaning, purpose and value. Living below the waterline is where we proactively take the lumber of our lives and seek to make of it something beautiful, useful and necessary.
The problem is, living below the waterline is a timely, sacrificial, tedious work. It takes a steady obedience to intentionality. It takes saying “no” to most of what others say “yes” to and saying “yes” to what most say “no” to. It is, more often than not, a lonely pursuit. It is counter-cultural and paradoxical. And yet, I am convinced that those who live below the waterline have few regrets. They may have sorrow and experience tragedy, but they do not experience regret. I am also convinced that, no matter how great, or high, or impressive the life appears above the waterline, it ultimately comes up empty, shallow and devoid of meaning (see this ESPN article on Michael Jordan as but one example of this).
Though the work may differ from person to person, the key, to me, is the idea of living intentionally, for, if you do not, the demands, distractions, and deadlines of life above the waterline will pull at you, day after day, so that you wake up the next day, the next week, the next year–even the next fifty years–without having spent any time at all on the things that matter most.
For me, though it has taken a long time to come to (and though I am but a toddler in this pursuit), I have chosen to work on the following areas below my waterline:
Faith: For me, digging into my personal faith is of great importance for this reason: I am convinced that I make a very poor god; therefore, I have found that my faith gives me a way to tackle the pursuit of truth, meaning and self-understanding as a means of transcending the “poor, shivering self” (to quote from George Eliot) that I, more often than not, find myself to be. The work I do in this area comes in the form of wrestling with deep theology, engaging in the work of the Kingdom of Yahweh, and carving out space for prayer, devotions, and reading through scripture.
Family: Being a husband worthy of my wife and a father worthy of my children is the great task that I have set before myself. Intentionally creating a rhythm of life that fosters a deep relationship with my wife (through date nights and annual anniversary trips) and space for my kids to grow in wisdom (through nightly readings, trips to the bookstore, creative play, almost no computer time), support (through shared meals, evening songs, supportive discipline, shared prayers), and love (lots of affirmation!!!).
Mindful Pursuit of Wisdom: I have made it a goal to carve out time in my evening to read books that sharpen my intellectual saw. I have set a goal for myself to read 50 books a year in the following fields: theology, philosophy, literature and education. I have also set myself a goal of reading through one singular topic per year (this year, I am reading through the life, history, and background of Abraham Lincoln). I also make it a habit to read at least one hour per night. The more I do this, the more I find it easier to say no to watching mindless tv or losing myself to social media distractions.
Meaningful Relationships: Though I have many colleagues and acquaintances, I have only a few deep friendships (friendship both in the Aristotelean sense of being persons of virtue who hold me accountable to being a person of virtue and in the sense that C.S. Lewis means when he talks about kindred friends who, when they come together, say “You two? I thought I was the only one”). I intentionally do not have a Facebook account because I want to deeply dig into the handful of friends that I have in ways that necessitate long conversations over coffee, discussing shared reads, shared pain, and shared dreams.
So, what does it mean to live below the waterline? For me, it means living sacrificially, transcendently and intentionally.
What might it mean for you? Feel free to leave your comments below.