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  • Writer's pictureMartin Stepek

Who Knows What’s Good or Bad in the Long Run?

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

We tend to get caught up in the moment when something unexpected happens, good or bad. Yet there’s a very different way of looking at such matters, as told in this wonderful wise story by Chuang Tzu, who lived 2,300 years ago. This is his tale about the unexpected nature of life’s ups and downs.

Two old farmers were neighbours. Both were quite poor, having just enough to keep their families fed and happy year after year.

One day the only horse which the older of the two farmers owned bolted and ran away. When the neighbour heard about this he went to the man’s house and commiserated with him over the loss of such an important and valuable thing.

The old man surprised him by shrugging his shoulders and said “Who knows what’s good and what’s bad in the long run?”

A few days later the lost horse came back to the farm, and with it came three wild horses. The old farmer, with the help of his son, managed to bring all four into the safety of their fenced off field.

The neighbour, on hearing this, came swiftly to the old man’s house once more. “Such good news!” he exclaimed. “You must be so thrilled to have four horses now.”

“Who knows what’s good and what’s bad in the long run?” the old farmer said, as he had done previously.

Some days later the old farmer and his son were working at taming the three wild horses. One of them was particularly tempestuous, and the son got angry at it, hitting it with a stick. The horse reared up and came crashing down on the younger man, breaking his leg as he landed his hooves onto the man’s body.

The old farmer and his wife managed to get their son back into the farmhouse and laid him down with a makeshift splint to keep his leg from moving and risking further damage.

As by now you might expect, the neighbouring farmer came over to offer his sympathy over this bad news.

“How will you manage to get everything done now? Your son was your main labourer. We’ll help as much as we can but of course we have our own farm to run,” he said.

“Who knows what’s good and what’s bad in the long run? We’ll just have to see,” said the old farmer.

Some weeks later one of the Emperor’s generals came through the village with a huge army, on his way to an important battle. Her told his men to size every able-bodied young man to add them to his troops. The local villagers and farmers were in tears, pleading in vain for the general not to take their precious sons.

They checked every home, every barn, for those who may have been hiding. Coming into the old man’s farmhouse, they found the son lying, with his splint still around his damaged leg. After checking that it was indeed a genuine break, they left the house with the son still lying there.

When the coast was clear, and the general’s troops far away, the neighbour came to chat with his old friend.

“What a stroke of luck it was for your son to be unfit for the army. The chances of any of us ever seeing our own sons again are slim.” He said.

“My friend,” said the old man one last time, “who knows what is good and what is bad in the long-run?”

The moral of the story is don’t believe your gut reactions to good or bad news. Master your responses through taking your attention to the breath, slowly and deeply inhale to clear the mind, and gently breathe out to attain a greater degree of peace of mind.

None of us can tell how things will turn out. Do what you can, whether the situation seems good or bad. If it’s good, enjoy the moment but don’t fool yourself to think it’ll always be good. Likewise, if a situation is grim, do all you can to limit any harm or suffering, but otherwise just accept that life brings its downs as well as its ups, and sooner or later, things will improve.

Trying to live this way, in charge of our mind and its emotions, we gain more from the good moments, and limit the pain of the bad ones. A deep-seated, subtle sense of contentment remains in either case.

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