The Origin of Halloween
October 31, 2018
Showing Up
November 14, 2018

The Farmer

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

We all have heard the Chinese story of the farmer:

“Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. ‘Such bad luck,’ they said sympathetically.

‘Maybe,’ the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. ‘How wonderful,’ the neighbors exclaimed.

‘Maybe,’ replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

‘Maybe,’ answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

‘Maybe,’ said the farmer.”

There are several interpretations. One is that whether an event is good or bad is impossible to know at the time. Another is that when things are going well, one shouldn’t go overboard celebrating; and conversely, when things are going poorly, one shouldn’t get too depressed.

To these, I will add another perspective.

To have meaning, events require context, and context always requires more information than the event itself.

Sometimes what is needed is knowledge of the past, such as what was said before—at other times, the exact circumstances, or what followed.

Meaning depends on the relationship of a particular piece of information in relation to other pieces of information.

For example, 33 is just a number. Add a oC, or an oF, and 33 refers to temperature, and two very different temperatures at that.

In the Chinese story of the farmer, good or bad depends on future events.

In each case, the context determines the meaning.

Now all this is fairly self-evident, but the story has particular relevance today.

We live in a world that has greatly expanded the amount of information we receive, while reducing the available context for that information. Partly this is due to the limited time available, but also communications are shorter. The sound bite is pervasive, and more likely to be taken out of context.

Even though we may be able to notice a lie, we are more often unaware of what is missing even when the information is “factual”. The missing part is the context, and that can make all the difference as to how we feel about something, or what we decide to do.

Just like the farmer, “Maybe”, might be the better response to what we see or hear than “Fantastic!” or “How horrible!”


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  12. […] next year will be different. What if what we considered success and failure were altered? I wrote a blog post on the Chinese fable of the farmer by Alan Watts in November 2018 that also presents an approach to […]

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