Confronting your Goliath

Since that wistful last day of school for seniors drew to a close, with the flourish of a thousand crumpled math worksheets and graded papers down the stairwell, I’ve noticed a certain lulling monotony has taken over my daily lifestyle. Gone are the stressful mornings where the snooze button is just out of reach, prompting me to scramble out of bed, knock my nightstand lamp over, and then realize with a startle that it’s a half hour before school starts. Gone too is the thrill and thrum of each school day, the mechanical march from class to class, the “Which club meeting is today?” brain freeze before each lunch and the last bell, and the final parting adieu I made to our building after concluding one last Late Night. That previously restless, obsequious energy has instead been replaced with a sense of stillness, dare I say complacency, that displaces the nagging nostalgia of days long gone with a rueful appreciation of having at last escaped the clutches of high school into freedom—or an enticing taste of it for now.

In this interstitial state of limbo, one of the healthier indulgences I’ve returned to is the long-lost practice of reading books, foremost among them a novelty in modern psychology named David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. In the text, the author recounts the fabled story of how a tiny, brave shepherd boy named David, armed with naught but his sling and stones, took on the monstrous warrior Goliath in a seemingly suicidal stand for the Israelites, pulling off a shocking victory in single combat—except it was far from shocking at all. The premise of the story is grounded in something we can all relate to: that underdogs are often the ones who triumph over their adversaries, for what we perceive as their disadvantages may actually be strengths in disguise, and the challenges before them are not quite as intimidating as they seem. The shadow cast by Goliath was daunting, but beneath the illusory aura of fear and failure, David was the clear favorite, most of all for his strength of character. This made me think about how we can choose to be David against the Goliath in our own lives in school and beyond.

As students and as young adults, we face the fear of Goliath on a daily basis. Maybe it’s at the tryouts for varsity soccer, seeing the steely-eyed lineup of contenders glaring daggers at you as you step on the field. Or maybe it’s when the wave of stage fright hits you as you step into the limelight for the first time, visualizing a thousand eyes of judgment from 500 disapproving souls. We have all been there, feeling small and fearing that facing Goliath will make us only feel smaller. Instinct and convention encourage us to run away, to stay up with our fellow Israelites entrenched on the slopes of the Valley of Elah, cowering before a lone but invincible enemy. The fear inspired in us by Goliath binds us to the defined limits of who we think we are, in turn causing us to resent the conditions that supposedly make us so constrained. We blame our looks, our upbringing, our misfortune, our friends and foes—anything to justify our weakness. Out of fear and jealousy, we judge others by their comparative privilege or conduct, without realizing we are merely reinforcing that weakness. It becomes easy, almost reassuring, in these moments to lose hope … exactly what Goliath wants. It is precisely in these instances that instead of viewing ourselves as the longshot underdog whose inauspicious fate is sealed, we must choose to see ourselves as David, the providential hero whose discounted success will feel all the sweeter. Reflect now on the happiest and most fulfilling pinnacles of your life, whether they be an academic achievement, athletic championship, or personal attainment—were they ones automatically given to you, or instead involved overcoming hurdles, trying something new, and bouncing back from defeat? Were you on those occasions the favorite by a mile or the underdog who had to put in the extra mile? In these cases, the outcome is only worth it because of the challenges faced during the journey, and our mastering of the fear in undertaking that journey is what transforms us from underdogs to indomitable favorites, just as David’s inner strength made him so against Goliath. Even if we should fall short in achieving our material objective, we gain something far more valuable: the moral victory of having conquered our inner Goliath, which is always our greatest and most persistent rival. As Gladwell writes, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration”—exhilaration that is a sign not just of triumph, but of progress toward a better self.

So why does this all matter? After all, this piece is supposed to be a sendoff from high school, not an invitation to relive its caravan of Goliaths, right? This is a moment to rejoice in the Goliaths we have overcome in arriving at this point, for we have all experienced our fair share of underdog moments throughout our highschool experience. This also happens to be the most pivotal moment in determining whether we are capable of facing the many more Goliaths that lie ahead. Having reached a milestone as momentous as this, it is tempting to believe our greatest challenges are behind us and thus fall into the trap of thinking we need not break out of our comfort zone anymore. That rueful appreciation for crossing through the final gate of high school can either bathe us in the stillness and false security of staying up on the valley slope far from the reach of our nemesis, a vantage point I admit myself and a fair share of my fellow matriculating seniors have thus far been enjoying, or instead equip us with the stern resolve of David as we enter adulthood, higher education, the workforce, and the throes of the battles against Goliath yet to come. It is our choice to make, and it has never been more important to answer as it is now. In the sport of cross country, confronting Goliath is what one does in every race and workout, and there are three words stitched on the back of our old team t-shirt that perfectly encapsulates this philosophy. For all the Goliaths out there waiting for you to stand up to them, and all the times you will have to manifest yourself as the unlikely underdog with destiny on the line, I say this: Don’t get comfy.

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