Actuarial science is the discipline that applies statistical methods to assess risk of disability, morbidity, mortality, fertility, and other life-contingencies. Generally, actuaries are employed by insurance companies or risk management firms to calculate the “risks” associated with insuring individuals against life’s catastrophes. Actuarial science offers accurate and razor-sharp predictive power in order to prevent capital loss for those very companies.
There are always exceptions, of course, that confound even actuaries. These “outlier” events come unannounced. So rare are these exceptions that a theory was developed to explain their occurrence. The Black Swan Theory developed by Nassim Nicolas Taleb suggests that surprise events have major and long-lasting impact.(1) The 2001 terrorist attacks; the Pacific tsunami in 2004; the stock-market crash of 1987; not even a seasoned actuary could have predicted these events with any level of confidence.
The result of the unexpected can be a deep and pervading fear. In my own life, for example, I have come to fear airplane travel—particularly, I fear the worst possible scenarios regarding airplane travel—despite the fact that the odds are much higher for my getting in a car accident when I go to the grocery store. When I swim in the ocean, I fear a shark-attack more than I fear the more likely event of drowning. These are the “black swan” events that haunt me. They are rare and infrequent outliers but their impact on me is as significant as the potential sighting of a real black swan in my front yard, an unlikely but extraordinary occurrence, indeed.
Intellectually, we understand that we are much more likely to die from heart disease—the number 1 killer in the U.S. and around the world according to the CDC and the WHO.(2) Yet, we do not generally react with the same kind of fear to the more likely and pervasive threats to our lives. According to the most recent statistics, 7.4 million people around the world died from heart disease, while 32,658 persons died world-wide in terrorist related events.(3) Yet our deepest fears seem to center on that which is a more remote possibility.
In my own case, I have often wondered what contributes to these deep fears—fears of largely remote possibilities—that continue to impact my life in negative ways. Is it that they are completely outside of my control or influence? Is it that they highlight my utter vulnerability? Is it that I have some psychological deficiency or a spiritual lack? Do I simply not have enough faith? Or enough love? Whatever the contributing factors, my tendency is to live by fear far more often than I live with hope.
Jesus encouraged his followers not to be anxious but to trust in the God who could be trusted even in the face of our anxieties. Hope, contrary to what many might believe, is not the absence of fear but often arises in the midst of fear. It is both that which anchors us in the midst of the storm, and that which compels us to move forward—however ploddingly—toward goals, our neighbors, and the God whom the apostle Paul names the “God of hope” in his letter to the Romans. We hold on to hope even as we understand that living involves risk—all kinds of risks from the commonplace to the extraordinary—even when it is a desperate clinging to the God who is mysterious, and of whom we have no control.
Following in the teaching of Jesus, the epistle of John seems to indicate that fear is the opposite of love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”(4) Yet to love, of course, implies risk since love can be rejected and scorned. Our attempts to love are misunderstood, unfulfilled, or unrequited. More importantly, of course, is that love requires us to trust and to hope.
While there is no direct connection between a lack of love on my part and my fear of dying in an airplane crash, there are other very real fears for which this directly applies: my fear of the “other” whoever the “other” might be; my fear of speaking what is difficult, but likely true; and my fear of putting concrete action behind what I profess all seem tied to the difficulty of loving as Jesus loved. His was a costly love that encircled even those who would eventually call for his death. His was a bold love that risked even when that risk cost him his life.
Many in our world today would see Jesus as an extraordinary fool. Naïve and trusting to the point that it got him killed. The foolishness of the cross and the weakness of God is all they can see, as the Apostle Paul noted in his letter to the Corinthians.(5) Yet, to love extraordinarily—even when it appears to be foolish like loving those we fear, or those deemed “enemies”—is the centerpiece of Jesus’s life and teaching. But we cannot love when we are afraid. Moreover, loving as Jesus loved does not guarantee that our worst fears will not be realized or that the unexpected will not happen; it is not the actuarial near-certainty or risk avoidance. Instead, loving Jesus guarantees living with risk that encourages a freedom from fear and boldness to follow in his footsteps.
(1) Nicholas Nassim Taleb, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” The New York Times, April 22, 2007. Accessed January 10, 2016.
(2) World Health Organization, “The Top Ten Causes of Death,” Updated May 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart Disease Facts,” Updated August 10, 2015.
(3) Svati Kirsten Narula, “More people died from terrorism last year than ever before—and mostly in these five countries,” The Economist, Nov. 18, 2015. Accessed January 10, 2016.
(4) 1 John 4:18.
(5) See 1 Corinthians 1:18-30.