A story is told of a Chinese farmer and his son who live in a small village, and one day they wake up to find their only horse has disappeared. The farmer looks at his crestfallen son, who now has no horse to plough the field, shrugs his shoulders, and says “This may be bad. This may be good. Who knows?”
The next day, the farmer and his son wake up to find their paddock filled with an entire herd of horses that have come home with the missing horse, who now stands proudly in the middle of the enclosure. The farmer looks at his jubilant son, jumping up and down because he now has twenty horses to plow the field, and he says with the same shrug, “This may be good. This may be bad. Who knows?”
The next day, the son decides to tame one of the new horses, and falls off and breaks his leg. The father, helping his injured and wincing son into bed, says the same old line, which the son is beginning, little by little, to believe: “This may be bad. This may be good. Who knows?”
The next day, the son and the farmer watch out the window as the Chinese army comes by, conscripting all the able-bodied young men into the army. This time, the son pre-empts the father, and says with a twinkle in his eye, “This may be good. This may be bad. Who knows?”
There is perhaps no greater skill in life that the ability to adjust the lens through which we look and interpret our life and our world. Fixed and rigid states of mind lead a sense of impotence and helplessness. By contrast it is the capacity for flexibility and adaptability which leads to creative and resourceful action.
Central to this is the ability to change perspective, to see and interpret things in different ways. This is particularly important in facing problems and adversity. An open and growth-oriented mindset sees possibility and opportunity where a fixed mindset sees limitation and bad news. This capacity to see the potential benefit in even the worst situations is central to the cultivation of resilience.
The above story illustrates well how limited our judgements are on what we deem to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Only from a very limited perspective can we see events as separate and isolated entities that are wholly good or bad. The bliss of love can lead to the pain of loss. Likewise, the pain of loss can lead to growth and the emergence of new life. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to the whole universe”, writes John Muir. The events of our lives are not separate and independent but intimately connected, and together make up the broad tapestry of our lives. Rise and fall, loss and gain, disaster and triumph, are all part of the ebb and flow of the creative energy that is the universe unfolding and our task is simply to ride these waves and move with, not against, these energies as best we can.
It is perhaps only in hindsight that we can see the blessings and benefits that can come from hardship and suffering. But given that we know good can arise from bad, a pragmatic position to take might be to simply assume that everything that happens to use at least has the potential to be in some way beneficial. Every situation is workable and so training ourselves to see opportunity amidst difficulty is a wise skill to cultivate. Would we actually choose a life without challenge and difficulty? Is a life of plain sailing even desirable? It is only in the face of challenge that we are forced to fall back on ourselves and develop our inner resources, to strengthen our capacities to rise to meet the challenge. Whether in our personal or planetary crises might we begin to see these situations not as catastrophes but as potential portals, openings to new life?
‘The old woman weaves the world’ is a native American story that, according to Michael Meade, is often told at times of great fear and anxiety. At the beginning of the story the old woman is weaving a beautiful garment and is coming towards its completion. Then, all of a sudden, the garment starts to come apart at the seams. The beauty and order of the work descends into chaos and confusion.
As she contemplates the disintegration and disaster that lies before her, she begins to notice something. She sees a loose thread nearby and as she picks up the thread a new vision begins to form in her mind. As quickly as the garment had fallen apart, a new design begins to emerge in her mind for her creation, a vision more beautiful that the original creation that she had been working on.
The mind makes sense of the world by judging some things as good and others as bad. When something is judged as good, we want more of it and so move towards it; when something is judged as bad we move away. As a result we get locked in to a particular way of seeing a situation. We foreclose on its possibilities. But every situation contains possibilities – if only we can see them. As the above story illustrates, even in the midst of disaster there are opportunities. In fact the very unravelling and disintegration that occurs in times of difficulty may be the very thing that gives rise to something new, better even, to emerge.
When faced with a challenging situation try asking:
How am I interpreting this situation? What is my judgement about it?
What possibilities are present?
What way am I looking at this? Is the way I am thinking about this placing limitations on what is possible?
What is a different way of seeing this?
What might be more helpful way of looking at it?
What if there were some positive potential here?
What good might come out of this?
What opportunity might this difficulty present?