In a tranquil village in ancient times, a wise old man contemplated life’s mysteries.
One day, his cherished horse bolted, prompting concerned neighbours to console him, “What bad luck! Your only horse is gone. How will you transport your produce now?” Surprising them all, the old man calmly replied, “It could be bad or it could be good.”
Fate soon intervened – the runaway horse returned with a wild companion. Villagers rejoiced, “What good fortune! You now have two horses.” Once again, the old man’s perspective echoed, “It could be good or it could be bad.”
The tale darkened as the old man’s son, attempting to ride the wild horse, broke his leg. Sympathetic neighbours lamented, “What misfortune! Your son is injured, and now he cannot help with farm work.” Undeterred, the old man calmly replied, “It could be bad or it could be good.”
As fate unfolded, war erupted, conscripting able-bodied young men. Remarkably, the old man’s son, with a broken leg, escaped the horrors. Neighbours declared, “What good fortune! Your son is saved from war.” His response? “It could be good or it could be bad.”
Such is the way of life.
The Meaning of Good and Bad Times
You may recognise this story; it’s an adaptation of the Chinese tale translated as “Old Man Lost His Horse.”
Life’s path is unpredictable, and bad luck often lays the foundation for good luck. By approaching life with this perspective, we can experience life’s curveballs with serenity. But of course, this is easier said than done!
In reality, it’s challenging to stay emotionally calm amid suffering—whether we’ve crashed our car, lost our job, or are experiencing physical pain. Simply repeating the mantra, “It could be good or it could be bad,” doesn’t always soothe the overwhelming emotions of the moment. While our rational mind may try to convince us that everything will turn out for the best, our ‘fight-flight’ amygdala is screaming ‘aghhh.’
This is where self-reflection and age become tremendously helpful. In our youth, even the smallest mishap can ruin our day, and the first encounter with harsh criticism feels like the world is ending. However, with time and experience, our memory kicks in, and our perspectives evolve. Looking back, we wonder how we once became so enraged at such minor mishaps. This reflection prepares us for a better response next time – but only if we deliberately take time out of our busy lives and create space to reflect on each event along the way.
In recent years, I’ve been actively working on emotional regulation, from reacting in the heat of turmoil to approaching situations with a clearer mindset. The goal isn’t to repress my emotions but rather to acknowledge that my perceptions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be short-sighted. The practice involves having faith that there’s almost always a silver lining to be found.
PRACTICING ANCIENT WISDOM TODAY
As we step into 2024, a year poised for technological change and ongoing global turmoil, let’s prepare ourselves by taking heed of the wisdom from this story.
There are three levels that have relevance today.
1. Hold Things Lightly
I have a friend who plays sport at the highest level. His advice resonates: “Your team is never doing as badly as you think, and never doing as well as you think either.”
When his team was at the bottom of a six-game losing streak, they had a better foundation than they imagined. When they won a premiership a few years later, there were cracks emerging in how they played their game. In other words, there are positives and negatives to be found in every situation. This seems synonymous with life beyond sport.
It can be challenging to see events with clarity in the moment. Practicing ‘holding things lightly’ requires that we recognize that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in every situation, even when we can’t quite see it.
This is about our perspective. It means remaining curious and reflecting on the meaning behind hard situations and holding on to hope that the next win is just around the corner. Bad things can turn good, and vice versa. So we hold things lightly.
2. Take the Long View
Being half Australian, half Chinese, I am intrigued by the different ways we see the world.
In the West, we’re conditioned for immediacy, with national decisions shaped by a 3-year democratic cycle. When we talk about holding the ‘long view,’ we typically think in terms of months or years, not decades or generations.
In contrast, Asian cultures tend to adopt a longer-term approach, making decisions with a generational outlook. As they say in China, “we fish with a long line.” We see this in policies like the “Belt and Road” initiative – a global infrastructure project designed with generational power in mind.
Learning from the long perspective requires that we move past the frenetic pace of the latest news cycle. It means reminding ourselves that the intensity of emotions we’re experiencing today will fade in a week, a month, and certainly a year. Practicing the long perspective requires the ability to zoom out, gaining insights from the future – seeing today as a blip in the context of time.
3. Find Gold in the Pit
The third level of truth transcends the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ entirely. If the old man’s assurance relied solely on the notion that bad luck inevitably transforms into good fortune over time, then his conviction was misguided. While it holds true that ‘bad’ events often evolve into something ‘good,’ this isn’t an absolute certainty. Not every ‘bad’ experience boasts a silver lining—some challenges persist and never seem to turn around, at least on the surface.
The serenity of the old man points to a deeper reality – where his inner life was such that he could find ‘gold in the pit,’ irrespective of circumstances. The key lies in perseverance, resisting the urge to escape discomfort, and enduring it long enough to cultivate growth and unearth valuable insights through suffering.
Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search For Meaning, argued that “when we are no longer able to change a situation . . . we are challenged to change ourselves.” His words, penned after experiencing starvation and torture in a Nazi death camp, emphasise that the human soul is greater than our circumstances. When we suffer, marred by loss and hurt, we always have a choice. We can become bitter, blame others, play the victim, and bemoan our circumstances. Alternatively, we can find ‘gold in the pit’—allowing the pain and hurt of life to shift our perspectives, cut through pride, and leave us humbler, gentler, and more wholehearted than before.
Even if our circumstances remain unchanged, there’s an intrinsic capacity within the human spirit to undergo transformation from the inside out.¹
Finding The Gold in 2024
In my perspective, inner transformation encapsulates the deeper meaning of the tale of the “old man who lost his horse.” How did he maintain tranquillity in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times? His inner equilibrium was not contingent on external circumstances. Consequently, because he saw meaning in pain and suffering, he could embrace whatever turn of events unfolded.
Ultimately, our happiness is not solely dependent on the nature of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ occurrences in our lives, as long as we discern the fertile ground for personal and spiritual growth in every situation.
As we embark on this new year, navigating life’s peaks and valleys, let’s carve out space to invest in our inner lives, fostering a touch more optimism and a tad less frustration – navigating life’s undulations with patience and wisdom. In reality, ‘it could be good or it could be bad.’
¹One of my favourite stories articulating the value of ‘finding gold in the pit’ is that of Joseph from the book of Genesis, Chapter 37-50 — a must-read for those who want to explore the inner journey that leads to transformation.