faith noun \ˈfāth\
: strong belief or trust in someone or something
: belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs
: a system of religious beliefs
Sitting in the pews of the historic sanctuary at Sixth & I last week, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the concept of faith played so prominently in Malcolm Gladwell’s talk about his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Heck, the title of the book references one of the bible’s most well-known stories.
But I was surprised. The way I understood it, the book explores the struggle of underdogs vs. favorites and the notion that adversity can be an advantage in disguise. Fascinating. But faith? How did that fit in? Within the first five minutes, Gladwell offered his theory on the science of success, declaring that faith and the spirit of the Lord are critical to the triumph of any “David.” And without these key components, one cannot overcome “Goliath.”
This is uncomfortable territory for me. Religion and faith did not play a prominent role in my upbringing. In the age-old science vs. faith debate, I’m squarely in science’s corner. For some I realize that a belief in science and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so I was curious. Admittedly, I have always been intrigued by people who, after overcoming a particularly rough time, can say “my faith got me through it,” or in the eloquent wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Lovely words, but I wanted to see the proverbial staircase before I took that first step. And I was hoping that Gladwell’s remarkable ability to deconstruct complex psychological and sociological phenomena through powerful storytelling would somehow make the concept of faith more accessible to me (now that he had brought it up).
Gladwell called out two stories in his book as shining examples of faith’s essential role in overcoming the odds to achieve greatness. He explained that the people in these stories were able to perform acts of courage because they came from godly traditions.
One story is about Wilma Derksen, the mother of 13-year-old Candace who was kidnapped and murdered on a cold November day in Winnipeg. At Candace’s funeral, her mother says, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person.” Gladwell points out that the stress was on the phrase “at this point,” and moves on to describe the Mennonite religious tradition that the family grew up in. He quotes Derksen: “The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on.”
But Derksen struggles to forgive and move on. Twenty years later, when Candace’s killer is finally arrested, horrific details of her torture and murder are revealed. Dersken says, “How can you forgive someone like that?” Gladwell ends the chapter with Derksen explaining why she ultimately decided to forgive the killer: “It would have been easier in the beginning [not to forgive him]. But then it would have gotten harder. I think I would have lost [my husband], I think I would have lost my children.”
Did Derksen choose to forgive because of her faith? She doesn’t mention it in her explanation, and at one point she says, “I’m not a saint. I’m not always forgiving.” Derksen had experienced the ultimate loss—the loss of a child. Her anguish and fear of losing the rest of her family seemed to be at the heart of her decision to forgive, not faith.
In the final chapter of the book, Gladwell shares the story of the Huguenots in France who defied the Nazis in World War II. In his talk, Gladwell claimed that the people in the small French town of Le Chambon—particularly a pastor named André Trocmé—were able to do extraordinary things because they were armed with faith.
As a young boy, Trocmé witnessed the death of his mother in a car accident that he and the rest of his family walked away from unhurt. In the book, Gladwell quotes a letter that Trocmé wrote many years later addressing his mother: “If I have sinned so much, if I have been, since then, so solitary, if my soul has taken such a swirling and solitary movement, if I have doubted everything, if I have been a fatalist, and have been a pessimistic child who awaits death every day, and who almost seeks it out… It is because you left me that June 24th upon that road.”
Gladwell himself goes on to say, “It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged….”
For me, these stories reinforce the idea that oftentimes people succeed when they are at the bottom, and that people who have been through enormous adversity can not only survive, but thrive. In Derksen’s case, she couldn’t afford to lose anything else; in Trocme’s, there was no greater loss than his mother. But these accounts did not make a great case for faith when it comes to the science of success. In fact, I was left thinking that tragedy and despair were ultimately the character’s weapons of accomplishment.
Walking out of the synagogue and onto the streets of Chinatown, my faithless foundation was still intact. I do agree with Gladwell’s premise that adversity is a powerful motivator and underdogs often come out on top because scrappy is all they know—and in many cases, they have nothing to lose. And in my work as a social marketer, I often think about how the strain of being the perceived underdog affects decisions and behavior. But I was a bit disappointed that Gladwell couldn’t paint the picture of why faith is so important.
Over dinner after the talk, a friend and I assessed what faith means to us. She asked me if I prayed, and I said that sometimes when I feel especially lost, I “pray” to my great-grandmother who passed away almost 10 years ago, but that I don’t really consider that having faith. She said that I must have faith that somewhere my great-grandmother is listening, or why would I waste my time talking to her?
So maybe Gladwell did help me find my own little piece of faith. No surprise to me, it happened in an Italian restaurant over a glass of champagne and a plate of pasta.