The Black Swan Has Landed and We Call It COVID-19

Bill Mowry

What’s the book I’m reaching for in this pandemic? This isn’t a trick question. It should be the Bible. But . . . there’s another book I’ve found to be relevant. It’s The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How can a book about swans help us shelter in place?

For hundreds of years, we assumed that all swans were white. No one thought that a black swan could exist. 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 only be 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.1 Black Swan events are unpredictable but once they occur, they upset our personal or cultural realities.

Our 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. Few predicted he would be elected President and his election turned the political world upside down. COVID-19 is a black swan event.

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 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.

Black Swans are regular occurrences in our lives.  Some swans are small while others, like the current pandemic, overwhelm our lives. All of us can point to unexpected events that upset our personal or ministry realities and routines.

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 in the midst of a pandemic?

Before COVID 19, a Black Swan flew into our family’s life. We were going to be first-time grandparents of twin boys! 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 seemed normal and predictable. Then the Black Swan flew into our lives and turned our worlds upside-down.

Our grandchildren were born pre-mature. They spent six months in the neo-natal unit of the Denver Pediatric Hospital. The nursery sat empty for months as my son and daughter-in-law commuted to Denver. The unexpected had happened, a Black Swan landed in our lives.

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 lived a life of comfort and prestige sheltered by 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 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). Joseph saw God’s good in the big picture. Those unexpected Black Swans, disrupting our worlds, become opportunities for building our faith.

So, how does understanding a Black Swan event help me in this new world of safe-distancing, ventilators, and face masks? Here’s one practical conclusion I’ve reached: I set goals for a year and then it’s all about priorities and values.

The will of God has been a serendipitous experience for me — a series of happy or unexpected events. I would not have predicted my current ministry when my Navigator career began forty years ago. If I look back just two years I could not have predicted my life today. Two months ago no one predicted our world today. While the outside world was unpredictable to me there were some constants in my inside world.

Certain guiding values and priorities have remained constant in this river of change. The Lord is faithful. Relationships are essential. Spiritual disciplines are practiced. Neighbors are loved. Even though I live from certain values should I neglect planning for the future?

Let’s return to Joseph’s example for some clues. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream to predict a Black Swan event — an impending famine (Genesis 41:25). How could the country survive this unexpected disaster? Joseph wisely counsels Pharaoh to store up grain for a famine relief project (Genesis 41:33-36). Egypt’s current climate of prosperity did not guarantee a famine-free future. Wise planning helped save the nation.

We never know when a Black Swan will land in 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 and values — choosing what’s important and framing my life around that. So, I set goals for a year and then it’s all about priorities.

The second lesson is an odd one: remember the Sabbath. I sometimes feel that the Lord has placed the world in a forced Sabbath. The economy has ground to a halt forcing us to consider what the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate self.” Pastor and author Peter Scazzero 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.”

Observing the Sabbath means admitting I’m not in control; 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.

The Black Swan can be our teacher. I’m realizing that I can’t control my future but I can choose to live in the present. I make choices daily about whether I will surrender to fear or faith. No one of us can set the exact date of this pandemic’s end but we can choose to live by biblical values and priorities. My forced Sabbath reminds me that I’m not indispensable to the running of the world.

The Black Swan has landed. What is he or she teaching us personally, teaching the church, teaching our nation?

[1] The concept of a “Black Swan” event is drawn from the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.