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Story of the Black Swans: A Reflection on the Lottery of Life


The Black Swan Family

Last winter, we moved into a house near a lovely large natural reserve where there is a beautiful lake with a variety of amazing wildlife. We enjoy taking walks in the reserve and have observed the myriad of creatures playing out their life stories in and around the lake – their comings and goings, building nests and having families.

Amongst the many creatures there, there was a beautiful black swan. It was always lovely to see him. The swan taking flight and landing is an amazing sight, a flurry of black and white plumage, powerful and yet graceful, elegant and light.


In summer, when we had a few large storms, the swan went away and did not return until early this year. When he came back, I was delighted to find that he brought with him a partner.

Blackswan couple taking flight

Two of them flew, walked and swam together, inseparable.

Blackswan couple

A few months later, 4 cygnets came into the world, grey, soft, fluffy and incredibly cute.

Blackswan cygnet

Not long after, however, only 2 survived and one of the parents was injured in the leg and developed a limp. The family always stuck together, whether they were swimming in the lake or enjoying the warmth of the sun on the grass. The parents protected their babies from anyone or anything that got too close.

A few weeks ago, I took my camera to see the family of swans and there was another man there admiring the swans with his dog patiently waiting by his feet. We struck up a conversation. The man told me one of the babies lost its leg. They were in the lake and it was hard to see. But when he pointed it out to me, it became obvious. I then realised why I hadn’t seen them on land recently.

Blackswan family

Words are inadequate to describe how I felt, a mixed sense of deep sadness as well as gratitude for the safe and comfortable life I have. All my worries and busy thoughts – planning, analysing, problem solving that were so important to me a moment ago fell away, and seemed utterly and completely trivial.

The Lottery of Life

In his video, The Lottery of Life, Alain de Botton explains how we take our extremely good fortune for granted. Various influences play out to make us believe that we deserve a perfect life, and that anything less is a failure. But there is no such guarantee. Even the most fulfilling and pleasurable experiences always end. We should instead recognise and reflect on our tendency to desire perfection and the grief this causes us. 

The media continually brings anomalies to our notice so we end up feeling that we are inhabiting a very different kind of world to the one we actually live in.

We would be disappointed of course to conclude that in all probability we wouldn’t achieve what we hope for but in another way, it would be a comforting and deeply reassuring experience. We’d feel a little bit more tenderness towards ourselves for not having in effect won the lottery of life.

Without being overtly naive, most of us are holding out hopes equivalent to thinking we might win the EuroMillions or the Powerball jackpot. We don’t deserve criticism. We need to pity ourselves for the formidable obstacles that sit in the way of the kind of the success that is so normal to want and yet so rare to have.

~ Alain de Botton, The Lottery of Life

Happiness and Our Expectations

We often feel miserable and our world seems upside-down because we believe that external things will work out exactly as we plan and expect them to.

~ Lama Thubten Yeshe

If we really pay attention to the expectations we have in everyday life without judgement – where we have them, of whom, what kind, small or large, reasonable or fabricated by our imaginative mind, most of us will find that we have a great number expectations and how frequently they are not met. Working with expectations is therefore a wonderful practice. It gives us the opportunity to develop a deep sense of appreciation for the play of life, its fluidity and mysteries rather than developing a defeatist or indifferent attitude to protect ourselves, which does not lead to greater happiness.

What we find is that having reasonable expectations itself is not the problem. Instead, it is our grasping and clinging to what we want that causes pain. The practice is to turn the attention inwards to our reactions, as the saying goes, “it is not the events of our life that are so important but how we respond to them”.

Holding wants lightlyHolding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others – even across the world.

The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them – and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.

~ Rick Hanson (Neuroscientist and Psychologist) author of Hardwiring Happiness


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