An old Chinese farmer is tending to his field when he sees his only horse galloping off into the distance because his son accidentally left the gate to the corral unlatched.
Later that day the old man’s neighbor stops by to visit, notices the horse is gone, and says, “You lost your only horse? That’s awful!”
The old man simply replies, “Well, maybe.”
The next day the old man’s horse returns to the farm for food and water, but not alone. The horse is accompanied by three other wild horses.
When the neighbor comes by again to visit, he exclaims, “Now you have four horses instead of just one! That’s great!”
Again the old man replies, “Well, maybe.”
The next day the old man’s son tries to tame one of the wild horses and is bucked off, badly breaking his leg.
The neighbor drops by to offer his condolences, saying, “Now your son won’t be able to help you on the farm while his leg heals. That’s terrible.”
“Well, maybe,” the farmer says.
The next day conscription officers come to the farm to enlist his son for the war but cannot take him because of his broken leg.
When the neighbor visits that afternoon he says, “You are so fortunate your son wasn’t taken because of his broken leg!”
The old farmer replies, “Well, maybe.”
This Chinese farmer story is from the Huainanzi, an ancient Chinese text with essays from scholarly debates dating back to 139 BC. This particular story is thought to be the origin of our modern “silver lining” and “blessing in disguise” characterizations.
Some falsely credit this story to English author and philosopher, Alan Watts, because he popularized the tale through his own writing, the most popular being his bestselling book, The Way of Zen, in 1957.
At speaking events Watts would recite this story, then conclude with the statement: “You never know what will be the consequence of misfortune, and you never know what will be the consequence of good fortune.”
While none of us want “bad” to happen, it’s unavoidable. We will get sick. We will get injured. We will make bad investments. We will have our feelings hurt, maybe even crushed.
Psychologists say that a key to dealing with the bad that befalls us is to put it in perspective, and that perspective should include the presumption that there is a silver lining. We must resist believing that “a bad thing is a bad thing” and nothing more.
In the 1970s there was a sex scandal involving a prominent politician who was running for office at the time. When the news came out, he resigned in shame. His reputation and his career were shattered in one fell swoop.
This 30-year-old politician did a very wrong thing. It resulted in a very bad thing happening to him, and deservedly so. However, as devastating as it was, it was ironically the event that set him on a new trajectory as a talk show host for the next 27 years, reportedly earning as much as $8 million a year.
I chose this particular example because it illustrates the idea that even when a person’s life seems to be utterly destroyed through a certain event, there can still be a silver lining.
I’m not saying that every unwelcome event in our life is a blessing in disguise. But I am suggesting, and psychologists agree, that silver linings happen more than we give them credit for.
So the next time your horse runs off or something seemingly “bad” happens and friends say “that’s awful,” consider this reply…
Watch 72SOLD CEO Greg Hague’s morning news TV interview on the effect of today’s fast-rising interest rates on home values.