This is the story of an old man who lived in a small village on the frontier during the Warring States period. Although he was poor, he was the envy of his village because he owned a large and powerful stallion. Such a majestic horse had never been seen in the district before.The moral of this story appears to be that you should regard every setback as a blessing in disguise and every piece of apparent good fortune as the harbinger of disaster. However, there are two lines in Rudyard Kipling’s sententious piece of doggerel If— that encapsulate this point of view rather more succinctly than the didactic tale related here:
People offered huge sums of money for the horse, but the old man always refused.
“It’s not a horse to me,” he would say. “He is a friend, not a possession. How can you sell a friend?”
The man was poor, so the temptation was great. But he never did sell his horse.
One morning, he discovered that the horse wasn’t in its stable. All the villagers came to see him.
“You old fool,” they derided him. “We warned you that someone would steal your horse. It would have been better to have sold him. You could have got whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”
“Don’t be so quick to speak out,” the old man replied. “All you can say is that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is mere opinion. Whether I’ve been cursed or not, how can you tell?”
“Don’t make us out to be fools,” his neighbours argued. “The simple fact that your horse is gone is surely a curse.”
The old man spoke again: “All we know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest of the story we don’t know. Whether it is a curse or a blessing, we can’t say. All we see is a fragment. Who can say what will happen next?”
His neighbours laughed. They believed that the man was crazy. They had always thought him a fool; if he hadn’t been, he would have sold the horse and lived off the proceeds. Instead, he was a poor woodcutter, still cutting firewood, dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived constantly in abject poverty. And now he had confirmed their opinion: he was indeed a fool.
A week later, the horse returned. And it was not alone. It was accompanied by a strikingly handsome white mare that rivalled the stallion in strength and speed. Once again, the villagers gathered around the woodcutter.
“Old man, you were right, and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse has turned out to be a blessing. Please forgive us,” they said.
“Once again, you assume too much,” the old man replied. “We can say only that the horse has returned. How can we tell whether this is a blessing or not? We see only a fragment of the story. Unless we know the whole story, how can we judge? If we read only one page of a book, can we judge the whole book? If we read only one word of one sentence, can we understand the entire sentence? Our lives are complex, yet you judge the whole of life as if it were one page or one word. All you have to work on is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. Nobody can tell. I’m content with what I know. And I’m not bothered by what I don’t know.”
“Perhaps the old man is right,” they said to one another.
However, all their instincts told them that he must be wrong. He now owned two horses, so they knew that it must be a blessing.
The old man’s son soon discovered that the mare was more docile and thus easier to ride than the stallion, and he fell into the habit of riding it around the district. Some time later, while he was following this practice, the horse was spooked by a sudden noise and reared up, throwing the young man to the ground, where he sustained a broken leg. It was a nasty fracture, which left the young man with a pronounced limp even after the bones had knitted together again. Once again, the neighbours gathered around to pass judgement.
“You were right,” they said. “The white horse wasn’t a blessing after all. It was a curse. Your only son has broken his leg and is now crippled, and in your old age you have nobody to help you. You are worse off than ever.”
The old man spoke again: “You are all obsessed with passing instant judgements. Don’t assume so much. We can say only that my son broke his leg. Who knows if this is a blessing or a curse? Nobody can possibly know. We have only a fragment of the continuing story. Life always comes in fragments.”
Shortly after the old man’s son had recovered sufficiently from his injury to be able to hobble around the village, war broke out with a neighbouring state. All the young men in the village were conscripted into their country’s army. However, the old man’s son was exempted on account of his physical disability. The fighting in this war was exceptionally brutal, and the army of the old man’s country was eventually routed. Many of its soldiers were killed.
The villagers gathered around the old man’s house, weeping and wailing because their sons were unlikely to be coming home.
“Once again you were right, old man,” they said. “Your son’s accident turned out to have been a blessing. His leg may have been permanently damaged, but he is alive and here with you. Our sons are gone. Gone for ever.”
“It’s impossible to talk to you people,” the old man said. “You are always jumping to conclusions. I can say only this: your sons had to go to war, while mine did not. Even now, nobody knows whether this was a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to have known. Who knows what the future holds?”
If you can meet with Triumph and DisasterWe may conclude that the old man’s neighbours would not have recognized this imposture, because they failed to understand the old man’s dictum that nothing is ever quite as it appears, and they also failed to grasp that extrapolating from the known to the unknown is a risky process with the ever-present possibility of being proved wrong.
And treat those two imposters just the same…