With my gray hair comes a lifetime of reading. There’s a lot of books that have captured my attention over the years. One book that’s had a lingering influence is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How can a book about a bird be helpful?
For hundreds of years, we assumed that all swans were white. No one thought of a black swan. Then black swans were discovered in Australia. Our knowledge of the swam family was up-ended because we had concluded that since we had only seen white swans there could be only one color to swans. Swan lovers everywhere had their worlds shattered! Welcome to the Black Swan event.
Taleb calls a Black Swan an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences. Black Swan events are unpredictable but once they occur, they upset our personal or cultural realities. 9/11 was a Black Swan event. No one predicted that a small group of Al-Qaeda sympathizers could disrupt the Western world. Donald Trump’s election as President was another Black Swan event. No one seriously predicted he would be elected President and his election turned the political world upside down. History turns on these Black Swan events, jumping from the unpredictable to the unpredictable rather than following a neat, linear route.
Why are Black Swan events so impactful? Taleb argues that we make assumptions and predictions about the future based on the belief that our current reality will continue to be our future reality. What is true now gives us the comfort to predict the future. Seldom do we take into account the unexpected or the unpredictable. Predicting the future with certainty is an illusion as long as black swans hide around the corner. So, what do Black Swan events have to do with life and ministry?
Black Swans are regular occurrences in our lives and ministries. All of us can point to unexpected events that upset our personal or ministry realities. My most recent Black Swan was the birth of our grandchildren. Like most excited grandparents, we had the baby shower, helped our son and daughter-in-law set up the nursery, and expected a “normal” delivery. After all, this is what happens with grandchildren. Everything at the moment seemed normal and predictable. Then the Black Swan flew into our lives and everyone’s world was turned upside-down.
Our grandchildren were born pre-maturely at twenty-six weeks. They spent six months in the neo-natal unit of the Denver Pediatric Hospital. The nursery sat empty for those months as my son and daughter-in-law commuted to Denver from their home in Colorado Springs. The unexpected happened.
If it weren’t for the providence of God, we would live in fear of Black Swans. Think of the Old Testament leader, Joseph. This privileged son of Jacob faced a life of comfort and prestige from his father’s favoritism (Genesis 37:3). Why should he expect a future any different? Then the Black Swan of his brothers’ jealousy flew in. On a routine errand for his father, Joseph was captured by his brothers and sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:25-28). Talk about a sucker punch! How did Joseph look at this Black Swan?
In reconciling with his brothers years later, he concluded that “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth… So it was not you who sent me here but God” (Genesis 45:7-8). We trust in a sovereign God who stands behind the scenes. Those unexpected Black Swans, disrupting our worlds, become trials for our faith.
So, what difference does thinking about a Black Swan make in my life? Here’s one practical conclusion I’ve reached: I set goals for a year and then it’s all about priorities. The will of God has been a serendipitous experience for me — a series of happy or unexpected events. In planning my Navigator career in my late twenties, I never pictured ending up where I am today. If I look back just two years ago I would not have predicted my life today! However, certain guiding values and priorities have remained constant. Now does this mean we shouldn’t plan?
Joseph’s example gives us some insight. It was the Lord who showed him in a dream about the importance of storing grain for the famine years (Genesis 41:35-36). In the dream, the Lord was sending a Black Swan of famine. Egypt’s current climate of prosperity did not guarantee a future free from famine. Wise planning helped the nation survive.
We never know when a Black Swan will fly into our lives. The familiar present is not a guarantee for the future. I can’t predict beyond this moment. However, I can live by priorities — choosing what is important and framing my life around that. So, I set goals for a year and then its all about priorities.
The second lesson is an odd one: I practice the Sabbath. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel writes that “Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate self.” Peter Scazerro notes that “On the Sabbath we embrace our limits. We let go of the illusion that we are indispensable to the running of the world.”
When I observe the Sabbath I acknowledge that the Lord of the Sabbath is in control. I think our obsession with planning and goal setting flows from a desire to control and manipulate people and the future. Planning becomes a means to guarantee results. The Sabbath reminds me that I’m not in control and points me to rest in a loving Creator.
So, my gray hair has taught me to value the Black Swan event. This has not been an easy lesson because I’m a bit of a “control freak.” I’m learning not to seize control of life but to accept the serendipitous will of God. I think it’s safe to plan for a year, after that it’s all about priorities. Keeping a Sabbath reminds me that this world is the Lord’s and I’m simply a servant accomplishing his purposes.
So, the next time an earth-shattering event — whether good or bad — comes into your life, welcome the Black Swan… and embrace the providence of God.
1The concept of a “Black Swan” event is drawn from the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.