Monday, June 2, 2014

boast more gladly in my weakness

It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. 
--David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite thing to do is to go through Barnes & Noble or another bookseller of that variety, and explore all the shelves of lovely, fresh books. Their covers are so smooth and untouched, and a lovely new book smell fills the entire atmosphere.
Old bookstores are just as lovely. Old bookstores smell of must and mold. 
As I wander through all of these old places, I gather up lists of titles on my phone, in my journal, on my fold-out map of Paris, on the back of my hand, and then go to the nearest library website and put in an order for all of them.
They arrive on my doorstep, and I embrace them as warmly as I would an abandoned orphan. My schoolwork languishes as my imaginative landscape receives all the nourishment that tales of India and fatherless boys in middle America and brave men rescuing DaVinci's masterpieces from Nazi hoarders can provide.

Part of the most joyful homecomings are seeing all my library books that my mother has so graciously picked up for me from the public library stacked up outside my door.
One of these was Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath. It introduces you to one of my favorite things: human beings who are not particularly superhuman, but have lived highly superb lives, and have fascinating stories to tell.
Every time I encounter these stories, I am flabbergasted.
I am amazed, offended even, that I had never heard of these stories before.
How did someone forget to tell me the story of Rosemary Lawlor, whose seventeen year old brother died in the Protestant-Catholic skirmish in Northern Ireland, that we so euphemistically describe as the "Troubles." If Northern Ireland is having 'troubles' it's easy to go back to eating your morning toast and jam and moving on to the arts review section of the morning newspaper. We all have troubles, families have troubles, it's just a  part of life. The British Army isn't usually called into deal with troubles. I think once an army enters the scene, we really ought to call it civil war. Civil war is a little harder to swallow with your morning cereal. Civil wars are brothers fighting brothers for reasons that they see as valid, but it's harder to explain them to their grieving widows and sisters.
How did no one tell me about Dr. Emil J Freireich, one of the pioneers of chemotherapy?
How had I never heard the name of Wyatt Walker, and his bold role in the crusade for Civil Rights in Birmingham?
I think I shall spend the rest of my life patching up the gaps in my education.
(Maybe that's what an education is supposed to be, anyways.)

In Gladwell's book, his subjects bear no resemblance to übermensch, but the lives they have carved for themselves are highly extraordinary.
Each of these Davids that Gladwell highlights, beginning with, of course, the father of all underdogs, the Shepherd Boy-King of Israel himself, has overcome great adversity, with limited resources and often bogged down by great disadvantages.
Gladwell does an excellent job of detailing the subtleties of each story, of the complicated social factors that weave together to created the colorful subplots of all our lives.

But there is something that he doesn't account for. He doesn't account for the mystery of why one fatherless orphan will work through his grief to become a cancer-curing physician, and why another will be incapacitate with sorrow and pain for his entire life. 
How does one girl fight past a crippling illness, while another succumbs? 
This, of course, is a problem that has never been worked out.
The ancients tried to solve this riddle by calling it fate.
If three sisters spinning and cutting threads is the best explanation that we can come up with for the variegated outcomes of our lives, then we certainly have a deep mystery on our hands.
Perhaps a mystery that will never be plumbed.
Human beings have this unquantifiable quality called resilience

If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening[...] If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises and indomitable force. 
--David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

Of all the aspects of human beings, I think this is the quality that fascinates me most.
This singular force that resides in each man's bosom, that empowers him to rise from the ashes.
We have to make up a mythical creature to capture that quality.
A phoenix is the best metaphor that we have found to portray the strength of a woman who can endure hardship and forge a new life from it.
Resilience is one of those traits that I find most impressive whenever I encounter it: the girl who can stay up all night studying the subtleties of the human body for an anatomy test, the women of the Rwandan genocide who survived inside a bathroom for three months, the mother who can wake up at two in the morning, night after night, the father who can work a job he hates day after day, the woman who never raises her voice at the annoying children she looks after.
Resiliency may be the most unattractive sort of heroism.
Heroes of Resiliency often go unsung.
But their stories, when recited, inspire something deep inside of me.
They pull out of each of us a deeper strength, a knowledge that human beings are made of sterner stuff than the Phoenix.

You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.
-- David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

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