The Story of the Chinese Farmer
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
— Alan Watts
So, I heard this from two different sources in the same day. The romanticized mental-health guru in me wants to think this is the universe trying to talk to me. In reality it meant it was probably trending on TikTok or something. The above is certainly wise in that it defies all of human nature. Sometimes after an outcome or “did you hear back?”, your mental response turns into a visceral physiological response (sinking, light-headed, want to wrap your arms around yourself, head shaking) that you can’t come close to controlling. Think of a bad breakup in your early years before anger took over. There are tools and breathing exercises to help you calm down, but it’s definitely a process, and certainly not a maybe.
The above parable is a fancier, more steeped in mystery way of saying “blessing in disguise.” We all know those. You don’t get into the college where your ex-boyfriend ends up going. Still, when someone says this to you, there is the small but not insignificant urge to punch them in the face. It’s up there below “Everything happens for a reason” (no offense to my deeply religious crowd, yet one can see how this line can evoke an eye-roll as someone just not wanting to deal with the issue at hand). The only people that have said this line to me are the annoying deeply optimistic and cheerful crew (yes, you can replace annoying with enviable, but you always wonder what's going on under the hood). I do get the notion. The above story gives more pause though. Even though everything seems to happen in back-to-back day-to-day sequence, it is a bit more illustrative of the fact that outcomes are not binary, you may literally not know for years. We’re so conditioned in the instant that it is easy to try to shut doors in the next instant to create some kind of closure. Maybe it’s easier to feel pain then it is to wait in open-ended fashion. Yet, I do believe there are rewards and certainly more peace to those that can zoom out and trust the journey.
Need Inspiration? Read Steve Jobs graduation speech at Reed College for a techie modern day interpretation, not so much Chinese farmer as silicon farmer. You can see what makes “visionaries” different in their ability to let things go and stay hungry. Thank you for reading.