The Chinese Farmer & My Realization


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

One of Alan Watts' more popular fables, I was lucky enough to run across an audio recording of Alan telling it a few years ago on YouTube. I was just starting to learn about eastern philosophies and any westerner who goes looking will undoubtedly run into Alan's books, lectures, and audio recordings at some point or another. If you Google the story, you'll find a dozen blog posts and articles about it and its meaning. In my opinion, the meaning is right there at the end. So, my story tonight won't be about what the story means but about its impact on my life and the realization that occurred afterward.

Most people will agree that good and bad are cultural constructs, but most would probably believe it only to a point. For example, murder would be an extreme action most would consider bad. Yet, countries wage war every day. While we may regret the loss of life on some political or moral level, we still go to war, wishing the others would surrender while we continue to bomb them. Most people won't condone stealing, yet Robin Hood is considered a hero because he stole only from the rich and gave to the needy and poor.

Now, let's look at good. One of the worst pieces of advice you can give a person is to ask them, as soon as they wake up in the mornings, to say to themselves, "Today is going to be a good day." I had someone tell me that once. At the time, it sounds like a mind-over-matter situation. If I tell myself this day will be good enough times, I can somehow believe it. However, what really happens is that you tell yourself it's going to be a good day and in your mind, what you've really done, is list out all the things that need to happen for a good day. And then you can judge the day afterward on whether or not it really was good as long as those actions were accomplished. If the actions on your list aren't performed to your satisfaction, you label it a bad day that makes you sad or angry. In fact, if you have too many bad days in a row, you begin to feel anxious or depressed. You might think you're a bad person or that the world around you is bad, and you're somehow stuck in it by fate or a god.

But as the parable teaches us, you can't know whether the outcome of any action will be good or bad. So, don't say, "I'm a bad person" or "he is a bad person." We are all just people who make choices. And those choices have consequences. An old friend used to say, "You may have freedom of speech, but you don't have freedom of consequences." That's true in this story as well. The farmer chose to keep those wild horses; therefore, the son broke his leg trying to tame them. Actions have consequences, but there is no method or system or brain smart enough to predict the future to know if any single action could be considered inherently good or bad.

After internalizing the story, I began to look at my own life. How much had I classified as good? How much had I classified as bad? Why was it one way or the other? What were the consequences of these decisions? I dropped several phrases, such as "good morning," from my daily life. I try just to say, "Morning!" I also try not to say that I had an awful day. It might have been busy, tiring, emotional, and exhausting, but not bad.

No one can tell me I'm bad, just as no one can tell you you're good. This plays into raising my children as well. I don't tell them they made a bad choice as they have become older. I tell them they made a choice and the consequences are disappointing or that the consequences will cause them to suffer. They don't like when I say this, but what are fathers if not for saying the same advice over and over again?

A chapter in the Tao Te Ching sums up my thoughts perfectly. Here is the line in Chapter 27:

"What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's job? If you don't understand this, you will get lost, no matter how clever you are. It is the great secret."

When looking up this chapter, I found a Reddit user (dilatory_tactics) who sums up the phrase perfectly.

Why would the good man get lost if he didn't teach the bad man? 

It's because denying the bad man, writing off the bad man as "other" or as someone else who does not matter, strengthens the ego, which is the illusion of separation. The good man just thinking he is better than the bad man will further strengthen the illusions of separateness and individual ego. It's only if the good man sees himself as one with the bad man that he could be one with the Tao. 

They are both connected and need each other to progress forward. Therefore, neither is truly bad, and neither is truly good. They are just two people moving forward together.

So, don't say today will be a good day when you wake up tomorrow. Say today is another miracle that I get to experience. We are a walking, talking manifestation of the universe, my friend. So, welcome each day forward with opportunity, caring, and peace. 

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