Sermon: Counting on Chaos (text & audio)

My wife, Debbie, has begun a new practice when we go out on our walks. Periodically, she’ll just stop and jump. She’s not jumping over or onto anything in particular – just jumping, for the sake of jumping. She started this after reading that she might be able to reduce the gradual loss of bone mass in her hips and legs by mildly stressing them in this way. Just jumping something like 20 times a day, it seems, can halt the loss of bone density – something that is a particular concern for women – and in some cases even improve it.

Now, of course, I need to caution that I’m not prescribing this technique for you. You need to decide for yourself what physical exercise makes sense for your situation. But, when Wes introduced the topic for the sermon he hoped I’d write, it occurred to me that Debbie’s jumping had already anticipated it. It’s an interesting idea that I find challenges some of the ways we think about how we organize our lives. So, I welcome you to open your minds, and as you consider it reflect with me on what implications it might have for our religious lives as well.

The notion we’ll be working with today is something called “Antifragility,” and it was invented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a one-time financial trader who now teaches in a field called “risk engineering.”

Taleb begins with the premise that the way we thrive in a world full of uncertainties is not to flee from risk but to work with it. As I said, it’s counterintuitive to the way most of us tend to think. We work to make our lives predictable and so protect ourselves against risk. But Taleb argues that risk is not only unavoidable, it can actually be a spur to growth and make us stronger.

So, what is this “Antifragility”? Well, we begin with the idea of fragility. Things that are fragile break easily. So, that would seem to imply that the opposite of fragility is robustness, resilience, the quality of resisting being broken. But Taleb sees it another way. Things that are antifragile, he says, don’t resist forces that threaten to break them, they gain from them.

Debbie’s jumping is a good example. Our bones are strong, but they are also at risk of breaking, a risk that increases as we get older: our bones get more brittle to the point where any fall might result in a serious break. We can do things to reduce the risk of breakage. We can keep ourselves fit, make ourselves more robust, and limit our activities to avoid circumstances that put us at risk of falling.

But, as some of you have discovered, surprisingly serious falls can happen just about anywhere. And even if we eat well and stay healthy, our bones still lose density over time. Apparently, though, one way to slow and even reverse that process is to give our bones a little stress. Small jumps now can reduce the impact of big falls later.

This is true of other systems in our body as well. We know, for example, that exercise that works our cardiovascular system strengthens it. Taleb goes so far as to say that stress is how our bodies learn about their environments, and when we deprive ourselves of stress – the right kind of stress, something we’re more likely to call stimulation – we increase our own fragility and imperil our health.

He pushes this to our inner lives as well: all of us, he says, need some stressors that make us wonder and think, some push-back against our pat certainties, ways to engage our hearts. “If you are alive,” he says, “something deep in your soul likes a certain measure or randomness and disorder.”

Indeed, antifragility, he claims, “looks like the secret of life,” or how it is that living things have endured across the millennia, despite the assaults of one extinction event after another. The trick, of course, is that while life may be antifragile, individuals aren’t. The dinosaurs couldn’t endure the circumstances of their extinction, but life did.

The perspective that Taleb seems to want to urge on us is to see randomness and uncertainty as inherent to anything we do. So, as I’ve framed it today, we should count on finding chaos everywhere. Again, this is contrary to the way we like to organize our lives. We like to create islands of stability in our lives where things are predictable. We look for things we can count on and organize what we do around them.

But Taleb insists this grasping for predictable outcomes is an illusion. The parable of the Chinese farmer that Pat read earlier is an example of this. When the farmer’s horse runs away, the villagers console him. What a terrible thing! But the farmer is not so quick to make a judgment, and sure enough the next day his horse returns with a herd of others. But this blessing turns out to be mixed when his son breaks his leg trying to train a horse. Ach, bad luck! But maybe not, since it leaves his son out of the fighting that suddenly erupts.

The parable teaches that we need to be cautious about how we assess the implications of events in our lives. That means steering away from “catastrophizing” – oh no, we’re doomed! – or smugly congratulating ourselves – well, we’re in clover now.

Another way of looking at the story is that we need to be careful what we assume is predictable. For example, none of the incidents in the parable were things that the Chinese farmer was likely to predict. They are what Taleb calls “black swans” – events that are surprising and rare, that could not have been easily predicted from prior circumstances. When such things happen, we’re inclined to discount them as flukes that we needn’t attend to, while paying attention to what appear to be predictable patterns in our experience. Yet, we know from experience that many of the most important events in our lives – from who we meet to how we make our way in the world – are inherently unpredictable.

But we tell ourselves otherwise, going about planning our lives as if we could control them. All of this worries Taleb, who argues that acting this way blinds us to variability in the world and when adopted, which he insists that it is, by many of our major institutions in the economy, political life, education and more can get us into difficulty.

We look for strategies to reduce risk, to make our lives more predictable. This may be possible within limits, he says, but in the end there is no escaping randomness and volatility. By seeking to remove the uncertainties, the stressors that impinge on us we, in his words, “fragilize” our lives: we increase the chances that a “black swan” event will do real damage.

So, how does Taleb suggest we respond? Do we simply leave ourselves to the whims of fate? Here’s where he introduces another term that came from his work in the financial markets, which he calls “optionality.”

Essentially, as I understand it, this means seeking out circumstances where there is a good chance that good things can happen and taking advantage of them when they do.

For example, we can’t map out the circumstances for when we will meet the person that will be our life’s partner, but we can place ourselves in situations where we are likely to meet people who share our interests. If you like hiking, join a hiking club; if you like music, go to a blues club or the symphony. You can’t be assured that it will work out, but you improve your chances of a good outcome by your choices.

It’s a strategy that rather than fighting the randomness of events, seeks to take advantage of it. We put ourselves in a situation with a number of positive options without betting on one in particular, hoping that in the end we will get something close to what we think we want.

The trick is that to use this strategy, we also have to be comfortable making mistakes – say, a string loser dates until we find the right person. What’s important in this scenario is that the mistakes are small ones – bad dates, say, rather than a bad marriage – so that we have an opportunity to adjust our strategy. That club was a little sleazy. Let’s try a different one.

It’s the tinkerer’s approach to making our way in the world, rather than that of the master planner. And, whether it appeals to us or not, Taleb insists, it is the way of things. We stumble around in a world we don’t really understand and through experience put together ideas of how things work that we continually tweak and test. It is a viewpoint that sees mistakes or bad outcomes simply as information, bumps we find a way to overcome. But, in the end each one makes us more adept at navigating the world around us.

This is all fine as long as we’re aware of our mistakes and upfront with others about them. But, what if we are insulated from our mistakes or able to keep them quiet? The negative effect of our decisions doesn’t go away. It just gets passed on to someone else.

An example of this that Taleb cites is the 2008 financial crisis. It was an episode brought on largely by a limited number of people who made risky deals that brought them great gain and little personal risk. When they collapsed, they passed the pain on to others and it endangered the entire financial system.

So, in any endeavor Taleb warns against working with anyone who isn’t invested in the result, who doesn’t have what he calls “skin in the game.” If I put myself at risk to some degree, I’m more likely to work for a positive outcome, and in doing so I reduce the fragility, the overall riskiness of the endeavor because I’m helping to share the load. Indeed, in some cases I may go even farther and sacrifice something of myself or my situation because it will help the larger good. That itself would be an antifragile act since it would transmute the pain of an individual to a strengthening of the whole.

So, what does all of this have to do with the religious life? Well, in keeping with our monthly worship theme of Revelation our dance with antifragility does offer up some truths that open new ways of thinking about what we hope to accomplish as a congregation.

First, it seems to me that religion itself can be an intensely antifragile enterprise. That’s because through activities that take us out of our comfort zone it helps us grow. We come here and find a diverse community of people with different backgrounds, different beliefs. We are challenged in worship, in classes, in small group ministry, in justice work that takes us into the community to think about things that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed our minds, to reflect on them and consider new ways of looking at ourselves, each other and the world. That is to say, when religion is doing its job, it is changing us and inviting us deeper into lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.

It’s also antifragile in that we share the risk we encounter. We care for and support each other. We collaborate in the work of raising each other’s children. We attend to each other when we are ill or in crisis. We celebrate each other’s successes, and we mourn each other’s deaths. We affirm it in the covenant that joins us and reminds us of the part we each play in this enterprise. And, like exercise, the more deeply we are committed to it, the more we involve ourselves in it, the greater benefit it gives us.

Also, our Unitarian Universalism has some particularly unique antifragile qualities. Our community is centered not in a fragile, monolithic faith statement to which we are directed to adhere but in a path intended to guide us toward spiritual maturity. We are invited to reflect on and develop practices that help us know and name our core values and sense of purpose.

It is work that we begin by going deep inside ourselves but that we complete in our interactions with others who join with us in a similar spirit of exploration and in our service to the larger world. We do it in different venues that suit our own particular needs, but each grounded in a larger purpose.

To say that we might count on chaos, on volatility and uncertainty is merely to say that we needn’t fear it. As beings of inherent worth and dignity – resourceful, antifragile creatures – we have evolved to cope with a changing world: in fact, not only cope with it but employ it to our advantage.

It gives us enough confidence that we, like the figure on the cover of your order of service, might look into the abyss of uncertainty and offer each other a few notes.