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Of Spiders, Rabbits and Desired Difficulties

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tn tough times wide t nvAny member of Metro church will tell you that our family is made up of people from very different cultures. Even those of us of African descent know that a Nigerian is different from a Ghanaian, is different from a Guyanese, is different from a Jamaican, is different from a New Yorker, is different from a Floridian.

Growing up in Guyana, I loved to read the Brer (Brother) Anansi stories--fables that traveled from West Africa and found a home in the West Indies. But when I moved to America, I had little luck finding the series. In my search, I kept coming across books about Brer Rabbit, a similar character in American slave tales.


[Anansi the Spider.  Image taken from the book, Anasi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti, adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott (paperback, Henry Holt and Company, 2009)]

What unites the African diaspora is its relatively recent history of oppression. That’s why we share fables with characters like Anansi and Rabbit. These characters are so-called trickster heroes, common to many of the world’s oppressed cultures, says bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown and Company, 2013; As you might recall, Pastor Johns has mentioned this book in this sermon1 ). David and Goliath makes the point that some disadvantages can actually be advantageous--Gladwell (born in Canada to a Jamaican mother) calls such disadvantages desirable difficulties. He even uses the passage about the thorn in Paul’s flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10) as the lead-in to the section on desirable difficulties.

The oppressed have the desirable difficulty of having nothing to lose. For example, in one Brer Rabbit story, Rabbit was trapped on a tar baby by his nemesis, Brer Fox. Rabbit had to resort to cunning to free himself. It’s how the American civil rights movement was won, argues Gladwell.


[Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  Image taken from]

Today, absent the pure desperation for freedom and equality that slaves and Jim-Crow-era blacks embodied, I would suggest that low expectations are the new desirable difficulty for people of African descent. We no longer stare down police dogs, fire hoses, and lynch mobs, but many of us have had to face classmates or coworkers who doubted our intellectual abilities. I faced such doubters as an engineering student in graduate school and later on as a research scientist. I used that doubt as fuel. In my mind, there was too much to lose: the very honor and reputation of my God, my blood and church family, and forbearers like Martin Luther King Jr. were depending on my success. It’s a mental tactic employed by many athletes: coupling the insult of low expectations with the fear of failure. It’s the perfect recipe for staying hungry.

Perhaps your desired difficulties and motivations are different. But whatever they are, know that the greater the difficulty, the sweeter the reward. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. [Matthew 5:1,12, New Living Translation]

1Marquis Johns, “One Man, Two Mountains” (video of sermon, Metropolitan Seventh-day Adventist Church, Hyattsville, MD, November 16, 2013), accessed February 14, 2014,

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Daddy to two girls, husband to one wife, writer, editor, lover of science and technology, and autism advocate. Ultimate Goal: To sing Holy, Holy, Holy before the Lamb of God seated on His throne (Rev. 7:9-17).