This is the third time that words from an Imagine Dragons song have come up as I have pondered over a topic to write about , and in this particular case the song helps to unify some of the concerns that I have pondered today, which in a strange way combines personal history, military history, and biblical history into a very complicated mix of interconnected thoughts. Being the sort of person who draws connections and parallels between sometimes disparate areas, I hope that my thoughts do not appear too scattered and that the connections between them, however complicated, make at least some sense to those who take the time to ponder and reflect over the confluence of factors going on for me today.
Today, 62 years ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. What to the United States was an act of foul treachery, setting in motion the end of the Japanese empire and the only wartime use (to date) of nuclear weapons was to the Japanese merely another example of a pattern that they had used successfully in starting wars for several decades in using a surprise attack to attempt to cripple the forces of a much larger enemy to gain time for a victory in a limited war through a negociated peace . This strategy had worked successfully in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 as well as the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. In both cases a sneak attack by an “underdog” Japanese nation led to a crippling blow that evened the odds and allowed for superior Japanese morale and tenacity to gain the victory against their opponents. The Japanese knew that they were inferior to the United States in terms of the logistics of war, but hoped that their morale and high technology would tip the scales in their favor and that they could gain a negociated peace through their initial advantage rather than suffer a war of attrition that would lead to defeat. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the war in December of 1941 that was provoked was not a limited war but a general war involving the United States in a global and total war against the fascist and militaristic regimes of Germany , Japan, and their allies. Sometimes the knowledge of one’s weaknesses and the attempt to overcome them only provokes the exact sort of situation one wished to avoid in the first place.
Today in Sabbath school, as it happens, it falls to me to discuss one of the quintessential underdog stories of the Bible, the tale of David and Goliath. Here, we see that Goliath (and the Philistines whom he represented) were bullies who took advantage of their military strength as well as their technological superiority in iron smelting to oppress the Israelites. Saul, having just been told that the kingdom would be removed from him and given to a better man, was in a despondent mood and was failing to provide the moral leadership and courage that his people needed, and so day after day Israel was taunted as cowards by Goliath and the Philistines. Since Goliath, though, seems to have been not a (pure) Philistine by blood but one of the survivors of the mysterious race of giants that inhabited the land along with the Canaanites, and that at times provided some of the leadership of the Canaanites, such as Og, King of Bashan (see Deuteronomy 3:11), it is quite possible that he made a great bully because he himself had been bullied by the Philistines, a bit of a “freak” that the Philistines used for their own purposes and the possible victim of bullying himself. He too was an underdog, of a way, but one who had cast his lot with the bullies and oppressed others to achieve a better place for himself. All it got him, in the end, was a well-aimed rock in the forehead that left him dead in the ground and the prototypical image of an aggressive bully for all time.
Yesterday I read a book about bullying for a book tour that begins in about a week and a half. The book was a bit difficult to read because it reminded me of my own painful history in bullying, a history that began at a young age and continues to be a struggle that I deal with today , much to my alarm and discontent. Often, painfully, I have found that what leads to my vulnerability to bullying in the first place is often the most effective tool I have to dealing with bullying, even at heavy cost to my own peace of mind. I first had to deal with bullies at the age of five. When I was in kindergarden, a fellow five-year old boy decided for whatever reason that as a kind and intelligent and lonely child that I made a likely candidate to be bullied, and he proceeded to bully me verbally and physically for a period of months, causing a great deal of distress. This distress was both because those in charge did very little if anything to stop the bullying (which has been a pattern I have had to deal with throughout my life when it came to such matters) and because the other young people quite enjoyed the sight of me being bullied (which has also been a consistent pattern throughout my life).
It is what happened next that is most remarkable, though. For reasons I do not entirely comprehend, the fact that I remained a kindhearted and respectful person even in the face of the merciless teasing and bullying of my classmates ended up winning the bully as a friend. Eventually, he realized that I had a strength of tenacity in my goodness that should be appreciated rather than attacked. One time I ended up getting in trouble with my own folks for having gotten off on the school bus at the bully’s house without having received parental permission, having succeeded in the difficult task of turning a bully into a friend but still having to face trouble for my efforts at friendliness anyway. This too has remained a consistent pattern within my own life, as explaining my motivations and experiences has always been a complicated matter. There is a power and a strength in kindness, and it is far better, if it is possible, to win over people by one’s good conduct and friendliness and respect than it is to fell them in battle. Likewise, if we are people of strength and talent and power, it is far better for us to use that power to serve others and to encourage and build them up rather than to bully them. Those who are most strong can govern themselves, and to do the right thing, no matter how much it costs us to do so.
What does this have to do with the song that was the original inspiration for this post, though? In the chorus to their song “Underdog,” Imagine Dragons sings: Hey, that sounds like my luck. I get the short end of it. Oh I love to be, I love to be the underdog, Hey! ” Although the lyrics of the song are a little simple and repetitive, and not quite as deeply reflective as other songs in their body of work, they are still worthy of at least some reflection. I imagine that the singer/songwriter is being at least a little bit ironic in saying that he loves to be the underdog, since he appears to be cursing his luck. In a very real sense, though, it is fair to ask how Imagine Dragons is an underdog at all. After all, they have had three massively successful pop singles and their album sales have done well. As far as the music industry goes, they are a remarkable success and have achieved a fair amount of respect and critical acclaim as well as massive popular appeal. How is it that they see themselves as underdogs at all? The same question, no doubt, could be asked of many other people as well.
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