The Farmer and the Horse

By Greg Nathan posted February 27, 2023

Many years ago, while living in a student house, I shared a problem with a friend. He was a medical student with an interest in the deeper questions of life, and we often talked late into the night. After quietly listening to my woes, he told me a story that has stayed with me for over 40 years.

A righteous man lived on a farm near the border of an unfriendly nation. One day his horse ran off into the adjoining enemy territory. Everyone told him how sorry they were for his bad luck. But he just shrugged and said, “One never knows.” 

One day the horse came trotting back leading a herd of beautiful horses. The man had a son who helped him on the farm, and who loved to ride horses, so everyone congratulated him on his good luck. But he just smiled and said, “One never knows.”

The son was overjoyed and mounted one of the horses, but it reared up and he fell off breaking his leg. Everyone felt sorry for the man, as now he would have to do all the farm work, as well as look after his son. He just replied, “One never knows.”

Sometime later word arrived of an impending battle with the enemy, and a group of armed soldiers arrived at the farm to enlist the man’s son. When they saw his broken leg they rode off into battle without him. Nine out of ten soldiers were killed in that battle, but not the son who survived to help his father on the farm.

This story comes from the Huainanzi, an ancient Chinese text dating back to the 2nd century B.C. It ends with a statement, roughly translated as: 
Bad luck brings good luck and good luck brings bad luck. This happens without end, and nobody can really know.

From airport to hospital and back again

This week I had reason to think about the story of the farmer and the horse when a string of 'bad luck' situations caused me considerable angst. Yet each was followed by a remarkable twist.

One involved an unfortunate sequence of events at the Melbourne airport, which resulted in me missing my flight to the USA where I was due to speak at a convention. Ironically the 36-hour delay enabled me to be available when my wife’s 107-year-old mother, Joan, fell over in her home and broke her hip. 

While my travel agent, Rae, was busily negotiating new flight details with the airline, I was able to be at the hospital with the family until Joan safely came out of the operating theatre with her hip fixed. I then travelled with peace of mind to the airport and boarded my flight, on which I am now writing this tip.

And while I may have had the bad luck of missing out on a day of visiting guitar shops in Las Vegas, I had the good luck of spending time on something far more important. 

I wonder if, when you think about the bad luck you’ve had, there have also been insights and good things to also eventuate that have helped you to become better, stronger and wiser. This is the essence of a growth mindset, where we look for the learning in the challenges we face.

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