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Chinese farmer working in a field

The Story of the Chinese Farmer

March 14, 2023


Long ago, there was a widowed Chinese farmer. The farmer and his only son labored through the cold winds of winter and scorching rays of summer with their last remaining horse. One day, the son didn’t lock the gate of the stable properly, and the horse bolted away. 

When neighbors learned what happened, they came to the farmer and said, “What a sadness this is! Without your horse, you’ll be unable to maintain the farm. What a failure that your son did not lock the gate properly! This is a great tragedy!”

The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day, the missing horse returned to the farmer’s stable, bringing along with it six wild horses. The farmer’s son locked the gate of the stable firmly behind all seven horses.

When neighbors learned what happened, they came to the farmer and said, “What happiness this brings! With seven horses, you’ll be able to maintain the farm with three of them and sell the rest for huge profits. What a blessing!”

The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day the farmer’s son was breaking in one of the wild horses. The son got thrown from the horse, fell hard on rocks, and broke his leg. 

When neighbors learned what happened, they came to the farmer and said, “What a great sadness this is! Now, you’ll be unable to count on your son’s help. What a failure to break in the horse properly! What a tragedy!”

The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next day, a general from the Imperial Chinese Army arrived to conscript all the young men of the village into the army. Their assignment was to fight on the front lines of a battle against a terrifying enemy of overwhelming force. The farmer’s son, because of his broken leg, was not taken. 

When neighbors learned what happened, they came to the farmer and said, “What a great joy! Your son avoided facing certain death on the front lines of the battle. What a blessing!”

The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” 

What does this story mean? 

Perhaps the story of the Chinese farmer teaches us about a suspension of judgment regarding what actually is a tragedy or a triumph. Can we really always tell what is fortunate and what is unlucky? Might the wiser course of action often be to withhold judgment rather than definitively declare what happens as good or bad? Maybe, as Alan Watts claimed, the story teaches us a radical skepticism because it is impossible to tell whether anything that happens is good or bad. 

On the other hand, a Stoic philosopher like Epictetus might see the story as the farmer’s rightful detachment from what is not in his control—matters about which he should be indifferent. In his Enchiridion, Epictetus taught,

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Losing his horse, gaining new horses, his son’s broken leg, and his son’s avoiding deadly combat are all matters that were not within the farmer’s power to control. On this Stoic view, the farmer is wise in not letting these external matters disturb him. As the first First Lady Martha Washington said,

I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.

The farmer seems to have what is asked for in the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Or maybe the story teaches us about how what appears to be bad initially may ultimately be a blessing. Short term thinking is not always 20/20. How often has something that seemed like a major setback, or even a tragedy at first, become the beginning of something great? I know this from experience. Do we not often see only in hindsight that a difficulty was just what we needed to grow and flourish in the long term? Painful and challenging experiences often lead to development, especially when reframed as opportunities to grow in skills, in virtues, and in bonds. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus said, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Terrible suffering is a medicine so dangerous that it may only be rightfully employed by the Divine Physician.

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Perhaps the story of the Chinese farmer teaches us about the complicated relationship between suffering and well-being. Sometimes what is indeed bad (breaking a leg) can lead to something good (avoiding death in battle). And yet what is bad remains bad, even if something good comes from it. It is always bad when an attempted murder takes place. Yet, in some cases, an attempted murder leads to something good, like a serial killer finally getting arrested. Similarly, what is good remains good, even if something bad comes from it. It is good for a husband and wife to have a child, even if years later it is bad that the child becomes a criminal.

The story of the Chinese farmer could also teach us something about what we ultimately consider good and evil amid the vicissitudes of the lesser goods and evils in life. For people of faith, the ultimate good is enjoying perfect Love, perfect Goodness, and perfect Beauty forever. This is called heaven, the community of all those who love each other and God perfectly. The ultimate evil is eternal self-willed loneliness, a heart forever divided against itself, a will ever frustrated in seeking the good. In the Inferno, Dante imagined the fate of the worst lost souls in the lowest ninth circle of hell. They are in the coldest and smallest prison cell imaginable, totally encapsulated in ice, isolated from each other, and lacking in even the smallest freedom. The ice is made by Satan who cries tears of frustration as he flaps his great wings struggling in vain to free himself from the ice. Satan’s vain, tearful struggle against God only creates more and more ice, increasing his imprisonment.

The great French novelist Léon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” If so, then the only perfect happiness, the only ultimate success, the greatest blessing in life, is to become a saint.

Someday, will you and I enjoy the perfect happiness of the saints?

Maybe yes, maybe no.