I just finished watching Jaws II. Not the greatest movie of all time, I know. Still, Roy Scheider’s characterization as Amityville’s police chief and his unsuccessful attempts to convince the city council of imminent shark attacks exemplifies Hollywood’s affection (and ours) for underdogs. We relate to the underdog theme because we’ve all been there—overwhelmed by formidable foes and against all odds. Our very existence (due to the fall of Adam) requires the odds to repeatedly stack against us—as individuals and as groups. In almost every movie, Hollywood grants the underdog moral superiority along with the victory. (As an aside, underdogs are increasingly defined as victims—especially in academia. Underdogs become heroes simply because of their victimhood. Rightly or wrongly, as long as there’s a power imbalance between a larger group over a smaller group, the smaller group possess the moral high ground by default. But that’s another topic for another post.)
God consistently and conspicuously uses underdogs as teaching tools and as examples of spiritual growth and moral fortitude. Jesus Christ was the ultimate underdog. Christianity began as an underdog religion—so did Mormonism. In my last few posts I’ve discussed the various elements and strategies of warfare in dealing with opposition and conflict. We all know the value of the underdog; we know that when our enemies underestimate us, we can use their assumptions to our advantage. However, I was inspired to write this post for a different reason. After reading the book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell, I gained new insights regarding our presumptions and perceptions of winning and losing in addition to our distorted assessments of ourselves and our enemies.
In his own words Gladwell says his book “…is about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By ‘giants,’ I mean powerful opponents of all kinds–from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression” (p. 2). Gladwell’s two main points explore how enemy identity is formed and perpetuated using the Old Testament’s account of David and Goliath. We’re all familiar with this story and its emphasis on Goliath’s supposed surefire win but his grave miscalculation of David’s cleverness, skill, and spirituality.
Gladwell’s two main points are these:
1. Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.
2. We consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are.
Gladwell’s second point is what I’ll focus on in the rest of this post:
The same qualities that appear to give them [giants] strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate it: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable. We need a better guide to facing giants–and there is no better place to start that journey than with the epic confrontation between David and Goliath three thousand years ago in the Valley of Elah. The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over many centuries since. It is how the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has come to be embedded in our language–as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong (p. 2).
How are these events wrong? Gladwell explains:
Goliath thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy-infantryman…a fight at close quarters. When Saul tries to dress David in armor and give him a sword, he is operating under the same assumption. He assumes David is going to fight Goliath hand to hand. David, however, has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat. [Using his sling and stones] he intends to fight Goliath the same way he has learned to fight wild animals–as a projectile warrior. He runs toward Goliath, because without armor he has speed and manueverability. What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor. He was prepared for a battle at close range, where he could stand, immobile, warding off blows with his armor and delivering a mighty thrust with his spear. He watched David approach, first with scorn, then with surprise, and then with what can only have been horror–as it dawned on him that the battle he was expecting had suddenly changed shape. ‘Goliath had as much chance against David,’ the historian Robert Dohenwend writes, ‘as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol” (p. 5).
Gladwell explains how this duel between David and Goliath “reveals the folly of our assumptions about power.” In his words:
The reason King Saul is skeptical of David’s chances is that David is small and Goliath is large. Saul thinks of power in terms of physical might. He doesn’t appreciate that power can come in other forms as well–in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength. Saul is not alone in making this mistake. I’m going to argue that we continue to make that error today (p. 5).
This statement is profound. Just think, not only can we use our opponents’ miscalculations to our advantage, we often miscalculate the strength and power of our enemies to our disadvantage. By questioning the very power of our opposition, we can change conventional notions of power and “warfare” in our relationships and associations in the same way David did. Again I defer to Gladwell’s words:
But there’s a second, deeper issue here. Saul and the Israelites think they know who Goliath is. They size him up and jump to conclusions about what they think he is capable of. But they do not really SEE him. The truth is that Goliath’s behavior is puzzling. He is supposed to be a mighty warrior. The biblical account emphasizes how slowly Goliath moves, which is an odd thing to say about someone who is alleged to be a battle hero of infinite strength.What many medical experts now believe is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly–a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size. One of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems.
[Therefore] why was Goliath led onto the valley floor [to fight David] by an attendant? Because the attendant was his visual guide. Why does Goliath move so slowly? Because the world around him is a blur. Why does it take him so long to understand that David has changed the rules? Because he doesn’t see David until David is up close. ‘Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,’ he shouts out, and in that request there is a hint of his vulnerability: I need you to come to me because I cannot locate you otherwise. What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith. Goliath was blind to his approach–and then he was down, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had been turned. All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong. David and Goliath is about getting them right (p. 11).
Perhaps before we hightail and run from our enemies, we might consider running toward them and do a quick analysis. We can ask ourselves:
- Are we making our enemies larger and more ominous than what they really are?
- Are their perceived strengths in reality a false bravado of weakness? (When I’ve faced my opponents toe-to-toe, I’ve realized they’re not nearly as big and scary as I thought they were. Instead, I found them to be as weak and scared as I was.)
- What assumptions are we making about our enemies?
- Could our assumptions be wrong?
- What assumptions are we making about ourselves? Could our assumptions be wrong?
- If we’re forced to fight, who says we must fight by our enemies’ playbook or conventional rules of “war?” (Jesus Christ, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King used unconventional methods to fight their opposition. They questioned conventional notions and the power of giants.)
- Why do we automatically assume that if someone is smaller, poorer, or less skilled they are at a disadvantage?
- What assumptions are we making about notions of power and advantage?
- Can our own advantages become disadvantages in the face of opposition?
- Can our opposition’s advantage become or is a disadvantage?
- Are we truly afraid of our opposition or are we afraid of being afraid? In other words, do we fear our fear more than our actual opposition?
Gladwell claims that underdog game strategies are more complicated than conventional ones. We get a hint of this complexity simply by re-reading the above list. Furthermore, invoking the Spirit in our strategies is more complex and effortful instead of relying on knee-jerk responses. Gladwell also says, When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable: a shocking mixture [of unusual plays and strategies]…and usually competent players panicking [because they’re losing] (p. 34). From my own experience, I’ve noticed that the more spiritual effort I put into winning over my opposition, the more likely my victory. Every time I face opposition, I feel insecure and frightened, but the Spirit infuses me with confidence and hope for deliverance. Gladwell uses an academic variable to explain:
How you feel about your abilities–your academic ‘self-concept’–in the context of your class shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence (p. 80).
We will repeatedly find ourselves in the position of underdog. However, we can shatter precedent in terms of our own and others’ perception and actions as we proceed to fight. Consequently, we can feel more confident in our abilities and perceive our unknown advantages through the help of the Spirit. The Lord will answer the above questions and more if we call upon Him.
In my next post, I’ll write more about the idea of fearing our fear,