By Daniel Scharpenburg
There’s an old zen story I really like and I want to share it with you here.
There is speculation that it’s a daoist story that the zennists appropriated, but for our purposes here that doesn’t matter very much. It’s about expectations and equanimity in the face of adversity. It’ll be obvious that it’s my re-telling and paraphrasing and not necessarily the most accurate version of the story.
There was this poor old farmer. He had a single horse and a teenage son and one day his horse ran away. A bunch of neighbors came over to the farmer and said, “Oh, how awful. I’m sorry you lost your horse,” and other meaningless condolences. And the old man (who was a strange dude apparently) said, “Maybe. Who knows. It could be good or bad.”
And the neighbors just left. They didn’t know what to make of his response.
A few days later the horse came back and two wild horses came with it. And the neighbors came by and they were rejoicing.
“That’s so great! Now you have three horses!” and other meaningless congratulatory statements.
The farmer said, “Maybe. Who knows. It could be good or bad.”
The neighbors left again, probably judging him at this point. A few days later, the man’s son was riding one of the horses and he fell off and broke his leg. It was a wild horse, not used to being ridden. The neighbors came over again, offering condolences to the old man. His son wouldn’t be able to work in the fields anymore.
And the old farmer again said, “Maybe. Who knows. It could be good or bad.”
I like to think his son wasn’t present to hear that and think his dad was a real jerk, you know? Because that’s a pretty mean thing to say if he was. A few days later the army came to town. Every young man in the village was being forced to go to war. It would be incredibly dangerous and they would be unlikely to ever come home.
But they couldn’t take the farmer’s son. He had a broken leg, so he got to stay behind.
Now, I know, this is not the kind of story you tell to someone who’s just lost a loved one or been fired or something. That would be akin to telling an angry person to stop overreacting. That’s not the point of stories like this. The point is for us to pause and reflect now, when we aren’t dealing with a hardship. We never know where things are going to lead—what will be next—and sometimes not getting what we think we want is a good thing.
So often we are wrong about what we think we want anyway.
Editor: Dana Gornall