Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Mindful Monday: The Old Man and His Horse–A Matter of Perspective

Old Man and his Horse.jpgA few people lately have reminded me of the Chinese parable “The Old Man and His Horse.” You’ve probably heard it. I publish it here not to say that all your problems are actually blessings. But what can often seem like a misfortune can turn into a very good thing. I’ve seen this happen lately and it gives me hope that there’s more lemonade ahead for me.
The Old Man and his Horse (a.k.a. Sai Weng Shi Ma)
Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before – such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.
People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend.” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.
One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”
The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”
The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”
The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”
The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, and old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.
After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”
The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”


“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”
“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another. So they said little. But down deep, they knew he was wrong. They knew it was a blessing. Twelve wild horses had returned. With a little work, the animals could be broken and trained and sold for much money.
The old man had a son, an only son. The young man began to break the wild horses. After a few days, he fell from one of the horses and broke both legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and cast their judgments.
“You were right,” they said. “You proved you were right. The dozen horses were not a blessing. They were a curse. Your only son has broken both his legs, and now in your old age you have no one to help you. Now you are poorer than ever.”
The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”
It so happened that a few weeks later the country engaged in war against a neighboring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken. There was little chance that they would return. The enemy was strong, and the war would be a losing struggle. They would never see their sons again.
“You were right, old man,” They wept. “God knows you were right. This proves it. Your son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you. Our sons are gone forever.”
The old man spoke again. “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this. Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”
Illustration by Healing with Balance.


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  • Nancy

    I love your blogs. It is the first thing I read every morning. I also loved your “Beyond Blue” book. Thank you so much for what you do!

  • Jacqueline R.

    “Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word.” That says it all to me. One thing that I am happy that the Catholic Church taught me was that there are mysteries in life that cannot be solved or answered. We simply do not know. So I try to take it day by day, one piece of time at a time, because we don’t know how things end up, what the results are in time of an action taken today. I am trying to “give time to time”; let things unfold, and then we know more of the story… Easier said than done, I know, but it does get easier the more you practice this philosophy. Everything changes and we need just wait (wiht faith for the best, peraps) to see what unfolds. Blessings to all of you, and you, Therese…

  • Kathy

    I’m not sure I had ever heard this before. Thank you. It was very intriguing and therapeutic.

  • Tom

    I’ll preclude by saying I don’t mean to play devil’s advocate; sometimes it just happens that way 😉 Anywho, can any of us ever imagine living this way?
    why do you judge? Just say, “My son got accepted to Princeton…I bought him a Lamborghini…he drove off a cliff…is in a coma (won’t be sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan)…etc? Why is it good or bad?…Let’s wait and see!
    I can certainly appreciate the message, but this can be taken too far. If none of these things swayed us one way or the other as they were happening, wouldn’t we have to be inhuman? Like Theresa, your book made #1 on the NYTime’s best seller list. Theresa: Why is it good? I might crack under the pressure/publicity, be committed, etc? Let’s wait and see!
    In the land of Taoism, Confucianism, and Zen-Buddhism, would a Chinese proverb truly contain, “God knows you were right?” Just sayin.
    I know I can do a better job of not being so down-trodden at the first hint of misfortune, but this one does seem a little extreme. Hope I don’t come across as obtrusive, as this wasn’t my intention.
    Keep hope alive! (God knows we need to!)

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  • Barbara Bowman

    I enjoyed this parable, whether it is authentic or not. And I especially liked the way it ended: without a real ending. That’s the way life is – what we see as a blessing, often turns out not to be, and what seems to be misfortune, leads to blessing. It has certainly been true in my life. And like the parable, life keeps unfolding…

  • Richard McCoy

    I remember reading that story a couple of decades ago and I have to tell that it has been “Christianized”. There was no mention of God in it as this is a good example of yin and yang. I have no idea how to put the yin and yang symbol in here but it is that circle with something like tear drops chasing each other. It is a dualistic philosophy and there is no getting ahead. There is an element of truth in this but there is an element of truth in probably every philosophy. But this is not the story of Job.
    My personal note on this story is that it is only the old man who receives equality. The rest of the people are secondary to the story and we would need to wait to see how many sons come back from the war for the rest of the story. I choose to believe that their “fragment” may be the whole book for them.
    There is no hope in this story, just the belief that everything will even out in the end, but is there an end?
    A couple of decades back I read a wonderful retort to this story from the Christian perspective; unfortunately, I can’t remember it. I believe its basis was the lack of hope and nothing was ever going to get any better. The story may have momentary therapeutic value, but the fragments of life rarely come in such an order as to keep things even.

  • Skylark

    I think both Tom and Richard’s comments are valid and interesting. From the Christian perspective the little story is off the mark as
    it does not reflect what Jesus has told us regarding the subject of
    suffering…nor what it means to be judgmental. To remove oneself
    from the world for a Christian has a very different meaning. This
    story on the surface seems to offer a way to tranquility but it is
    false as life cannot always be lived that way. The premise seems to
    be that all can be serene even in the face of disaster if one does
    not attempt to see all of life in any one incident…be it a blessing
    or what seems to be a disaster. In one way it is the meaning of the Crucifix…what is apparent there is not real! But I think what the
    old man is really saying is not that, but rather something like the late President John F. Kennedy stated once in an interview that went something like ” When I am riding high (politically) I never indulge
    in the glory too heavily because I know that in an instant it can dramtically change. Likewise when things are bleak (politically)I never get too down, because again, overnight fortunes can reverse!”
    We can see some wisdom here but again, not the Christian philosophy
    in regard to misfortune or fortune in this world. But it is a nice
    little story with a message in there..somewhere for some peoles at some time…not all time under all circumstances. It thus points up the brokeness of life as we know it.

  • Ashcan Rose

    I like Tom’s comment and agree with it hugely!

  • Karen

    This parable is very timely for me. I paid an attorney a lot of money to help me with what the attorney said was a wrongful foreclosure. During the process, I found out that he has become ineligible to practice law and pending disbarment. Now I must go to court without representation and stand by myself up against highly-experienced and educated bank lawyers. I do not know whether it was a blessing or if it is a curse that this attorney absconded with my money which was given to him from savings while unemployed. I am stepping out on faith whichever way the wind blows.

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