The Parable of the Farmer and His Fate

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomThere is an age-old Chinese parable about a farmer and his fate. It goes something like this: there once lived an old farmer who had diligently tended to his crops for many years. He relied on his trusty, hard-working horse to plow the fields. But one day, the horse broke through the fence and ran away. Upon hearing this news, the farmer’s neighbors rushed over to the farmer to voice their concern. “What bad luck this is,” they said, “You will not have your horse during the critical planting season.” The farmer listened intently, nodding his head as if in agreement, smiling slightly. Then he spoke softly, “Bad luck, good luck — who really knows?”

A few days later the horse, accompanied by two wild horses, returned to the farmer’s stable. The farmer immediately realized that he could train these two new horses to help him plow his field more efficiently. Soon after, the neighbors heard about this and visited the farmer. “You are now blessed with three strong horses,” they said in unison, “What great luck this is!” But the laconic farmer simply replied, “Good luck, bad luck — who really knows?”

The farmer gave one of the untamed horses to his son. While riding the horse, the son was thrown off and broke his leg. The farmer’s neighbors came around again and expressed their worry, “It is a shame that your son will not be able to help you during planting season. This is such bad luck!” The farmer smiled faintly, and said “Bad luck, good luck — who really knows?”

A few days later, the Chinese emperor’s army rode ominously into town under gray clouds. The general’s order was to draft the eldest son from every family into the army. One of the soldiers took one look at the farmer’s son’s broken leg and motioned to have him left behind. The army marched out of town while tearful residents waved goodbye to their sons, knowing that they may not see them again. Later in the day, the neighbors gathered at the farmer’s house. “You are the only family that did not have their son drafted into the army,” they said. “This is such good luck!” The farmer, who was busy with his chores, looked up and said, “Good luck, bad luck — who really knows?”

This timeless Chinese parable teaches us that luck can be paradoxical — bad luck can be very good luck (and vice-versa). Another lesson is that fate — whether considered “good luck” or “bad luck” — is a matter of perspective. This is one of the greatest lessons that Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, teaches us: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” [Emphasis added] from Man’s Search for Meaning published in 1946.

The parable also reminds us of the famous proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” that originated in the late 1800s. That is to say, one should never feel down and hopeless because challenging times lead to happier, better days ahead. The proverb also introduces a very important metaphor about life — every situation in life is transitory; gray clouds that create dark days will eventually pass, allowing the sun’s radiant light to shine through. Or expressed another way, no matter how dark the night, each dawn ushers in a new day full of hope and new opportunities.

At another level, the parable teaches about a very important life lesson: acceptance. Rather than creating drama around a situation that is either “good luck” or “bad luck” it is best to follow the Taoist tradition of detachment and acceptance. It is important not to celebrate the good luck or scorn the bad luck too excessively. Moreover, it is critical to simply accept life as it is, rather than expending energy to consider what could have been or should have been. Only then one can fully consider the question that my Jesuit mentors often posed: “what is the next, best step?”

There is an absolutely brilliant discussion of fate and misfortunate, through the lens of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, by an erudite, insightful young (as in high school aged) scholar titled: The Consolation of Adversity’s Sweet Milk, Philosophy. If you are passionate about literature and/or philosophy, you will definitely find it fascinating and thought-provoking; moreover it will inspire you to pick up and read (or re-read) two timeless classics.

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Read related posts: The Parable of the Carpenter’s Son
The Parable of the Ship Mechanic
The Mayonnaise Jar and Cups of Coffee
The Wisdom of a Grandparent
The Wisdom of Parents
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac

For further reading:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl


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