Defense from the Unpredictability of Life or How to Ruin a Champagne Toast

I am of the opinion that red wine is for any meal, white wine is for cooking, and champagne is only for celebrating. When I have a glass of champagne in my hand I want to be laughing, hugging, and dancing – all with people in sequins. I can only recall one such time when this was not the case and I am certainly to blame.

My dear friend had just gotten engaged and a handsome herd us met to celebrate in the bar area of a high-ceilinged restaurant. The bar was louder than a middle school girl’s sleepover, but you could still hear the pop of each champagne cork. After a group toast or two, I cornered my newly engaged friend (my social awkwardness ensures I do this at all large social functions) to have a meaningful conversation about his monogamous future. After a smile and another hug I asked him “So! How might this thing end in divorce?”

He rightfully, took my sparkling rosé, set it on the bar, leaned in and whispered in my ear “You are a mad man. Please leave.”

While it may have been slightly inappropriate to ask him this just hours after his proposal, I had good intentions. It was a thought experiment. I was asking him to consider all of the possible paths to failure. Why? Because in my experience (of my own marriage and those in my family), you can’t predict how the future you or the future anyone else will behave and you certainly cannot predict how those behaviors will impact you. Why didn’t he see that that’s what I was after? So sensitive!

So if marriage (like investing, parenting, teaching, leading, oh and, LIFE), at least in my opinion, is so unpredictable, what are we to do? Pre-marital counseling? Compatibility tests? Live together first to make sure that she always smells that good? Those are all good risk mitigation tactics but mounting evidence says that those don’t work.

In my mind that leaves us one option – to create a more whole, centered, loving self that is prepared for the certainty of life’s unpredictability. And there is one thing that is guaranteed to screw that self-strengthening-process up: defensiveness.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, famously described human behavior as a collaboration between an elephant and a rider – the division between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. Haidt claims that rather than taking charge, the over matched rider tends to lean with the direction of the elephant and begins to logically defend the decision that was actually made by the automatic/implicit process. In other words our behavior is often un-rational (even to our own self) but we try to explain it so that it seems rational.

Why? For me it is because admitting that the elephant is in charge is scary. Admitting that all of my decisions are not thought out, well informed, and their outcomes controllable is frightening. And this feeling that the unpredictable elephant is an antagonist that we must protect ourselves from is a driving force for our nation’s baseline anxiety (despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime). But this anxiety and our need for a predictable and controlled future may actually be robbing us of the attributes we need to withstand life’s unpredictability.

Right now, drop what you are doing, and put your hands up like you are about to be smacked in the face. Things just got real on this blog post! Like a boxer or a hillbilly in a bar fight – put your dukes up. Now with your hands in that same position I want you to imagine someone throwing you a large, expensive and very fragile vase. But don’t put your hands down! You might get smacked in the mouth! Continue to defend yourself and try to catch the vase! Not easy work, eh? If someone wants to try this and put the video on the internet, I wouldn’t mind.

Defensiveness is active. We get hyper focused on the perceived harm. Then we tense up and go to war with that harm. When we are defensive of ourselves (others, ideas, companies, cities, political parties), it is difficult to receive much of anything.

In my faith tradition there is a verse that says by His divine power, not our own, God has given us everything we need to experience a rich life. There are numerous Buddhist sayings that reinforce that wisdom is something received rather than struggled for. In his book, Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb agrees with this idea saying that all things that have life in them are “anti-fragile.” “Antifragile” is his phrase for things that naturally get stronger when experiencing pain or volatility. He believes that humans were created to thrive in changing unpredictability. But he says that many of us today “suppress harm and volatility” and thus create countries, organizations, and families vulnerable to catastrophe. In other words, by not receiving the way in which we have been created, and instead defending ourselves from life’s unpredictaibilities, we are increasing our fragility.

As a pastor (former in roll, current in duties) I have the privilege of standing with individuals as they commit to a lifetime of love. I also have the privilege of doing pre-marital counseling and seeing how hard they are willing to work for a thriving marriage. In my premarital counseling I often ask the happy couple to “blow it up.” I invite them to imagine chaos, trauma, and worse case scenario. I ask them the question I asked my champagne sipping friend.

We should ask ourselves more of these questions. How can we allow ourselves to feel the fear of failure, hardship, and pain (while understanding that many, because of the intensity of it, don’t get a choice to not feel those things)? The antifragile feel the uncertainty and know it is inevitable. We cannot realistically predict our future behavior or the behavior of those we relate with. Change, variance, and our unknowing are guaranteed.

But also guaranteed is our ability to survive – even thrive – in the face of this unpredictability. If only we could receive how we have been made. Receive the complexity and the mystery of our resilience. With gratitude. And toast a glass of champagne to that.


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