“I Complained to God” (Outliers 3)

Malcolm Gladwell, as I’ve noted in previous blogs here and here, makes the case in his book Outliers that success is not totally the result of individual initiative or ability. It is inextricably wrapped up in our background and historical circumstances. This doesn’t mean that individual responsibility is a myth.

On the contrary, in Gladwell’s epilogue he tells a story about his mother, Joyce, who was born in Jamaica of mixed parentage. In the culture of Jamaica as she was growing up, which was only ten percent White, this worked to her advantage. This was because social status was strictly determined by the shade of one’s skin–the darker the shade, the lower the status; the lighter the shade, the higher the status.

Before Malcolm was born, his parents were looking for an apartment in London. After a long search, his father (a young British mathematician) found one in a suburb. After they moved in, however, the landlady angrily ordered them to move out. “You didn’t tell me your wife was Jamacian,” she raged against his father.

Later Joyce wrote a book for InterVarsity Press in England, published in 1969, entitled Brown Face, Big Master, in which she tells the story. There she wrote:

I complained to God in so many words, “Here I was, the wounded representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and equal with the dominating whites!” And God was amused; my prayer did not ring true with him.

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I would try again. And then God said, “Have you not done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are? Grateful that you are not black? My anger and hate against the landlady melted. I was no better than she was, nor worse for that matter . . . . We were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and exclusiveness by which we cut some people off from ourselves. (Brown Face, Big Master; pp 110-11; also quoted in Outliers, p. 284)

It is very human to see the wrong that others do more easily than our own failings and faults. Yet Joyce took individual responsibility. She did not simply blame others or her circumstances or God.

Nonetheless it was her circumstances and background that allowed her to go to London in the first place to experience both love and racism. And so it is that life is both our own choices and conditions over which we have little control.

When our social setting tips the balance in favor of one group or another, we still have a responsibility, however. Will we respond to those circumstances, individually and corporately, by accepting things as they are, or will we act on behalf of those who don’t have things tipped in their favor?

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

7 thoughts on ““I Complained to God” (Outliers 3)”

  1. This is a perceptive, insightful, and thought-provoking illustration which you have provided from Joyce Gladwell’s experience with prejudice, and your response to her story and her son’s remarks about the factors involved in success point to a way of understanding that might portend the next step in the develop of a more synthetical scientific method which has been long needed. We have been suffering for some time from what has become glaringly apparent, namely, the deficiences of the present scientific method. The paralysis of analysis, the failure to be comprehensive enough to take in a hypothesis which includes the null hypothesis in a both/and situation instead of an either/or, when such is appropriate. The complexity of the universe and existence underscores the need for a more comprehensive and apperceptive method, one truly synthetical as well as analytical, subjective in the best sense of the objective as well as objective in the best sense of the subjective. The math for such I leave to more able minds, but it is surely reducible to a mathematically testable formula.

  2. Great question about grace. That is what the Joyce Gladwell quote is all about, isn’t it? Because we are forgiven of our racist attitudes we can also show grace to others when they don’t act with compassion or grace toward us. Exactly how God’s activity in our lives intermingles with our own decisions and actions (individually and corporately) is a mystery theologians have debated for centuries. But we do know they all make a difference.

  3. Forgive me — maybe I wasn’t clear in my question, so I’ll expound. As Christians, we’re on the receiving end of our relationship with God, praying, “Lord, let me receive what you’re doing in me and for me through Jesus Christ.” In other words, we can’t save ourselves from things beyond our control (e.g., the constrictions you and Malcolm mention), but God can/does. To what degree do you think God can/does move any of us past these constrictions? Or: To what degree do you think we’re each “doomed,” so to speak because of our constrictions?

  4. Hi Jadell:

    Well, I thought I was answering the question–maybe I was too vague! The Fate vs. Free will question is not new. And how God factors into the mix is also an issue. First, contrary to the American myth, I don’t think anyone can do/be anything. At my stage in life I cannot be a professional athlete. Nor can I be president of France–despite my last name. These are superficial examples, to be sure, but they point out that limitations are built in to life even in more significant ways. This is, if you will allow me, the “fate” part of life that we all experience. Yet within these sorts of limits, there is room for freedom to move, change, grow or make destructive choices that actually remove freedom. That’s the free will side.

    Now what about God? Or more to the point, what is God’s best for us, his goal for us, his desires for us? Certainly justice, peace, love for communities and societies as a whole as well as for individuals. The more God’s grace permeates society, the more God’s grace will be felt by the individuals in it. But even in societies or circumstances that are harsh and contrary to God’s desires, grace can be at work.

    Ultimately, I suppose your question can be a variation of the problem of evil. Why doesn’t God save us out of evil circumstances? Many martyrs went to the lions. Many innocent people are struck with diseases. God’s will is that we join him in fighting evil and suffering as we are able and that we receive his grace in the midst of these less than ideal circumstances. Why he chooses to pull some out of such circumstances and others not is a mystery. No other religion answers the problem of suffering fully either. But I think Christianity comes closer in acknowledging the reality of evil (not saying it’s imaginary or not really that bad), that it needs to be fought against (not accepted), that God is against evil too and will ultimately triumph, but that in the meantime life is messy, that we are in a real battle with real stakes and sometimes real casualties.

    Have I got to your question yet?


  5. Andy, as always, your tone/words are healing and constructive. (I’m going to copy and ponder them more.) You helped me think toward answering my question. My thinking went something like this:

    What does this mean to the Ethiopian widow who’s merely trying to keep herself and her infant alive? Answer: By God’s grace, each of will reach a place in life from which we cry out to God, “Help me!” Her, there; me, here — we have equal opportunity to recognize our need and cry out to God to meet it. In that, we are the same and eligible for God to lift us above/beyond constraints. I hope that makes sense.

    With a sigh of relief and gratitude for grace,

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