I’ve been mulling over a Zen story about a farmer whose horse ran away. “Such bad luck!” his neighbors said. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
Then the horse returned, accompanied by two wild horses. “So fortunate!” the neighbors said. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
Later, the farmer’s son tried to ride a wild horse, was thrown off, and broke his leg. “How awful!” the neighbors sympathized. The farmer: “Maybe.”
The army came through town, recruiting all the young men. They passed by the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. “Such good luck!” declared the neighbors. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
What I can’t get out of my mind is the farmer’s abiding equanimity. Where I ride waves of emotion, he keeps an even keel. The highs of anticipation, excitement, and jubilation, he seems to say, can throw us off as much as disappointment. Throw us off what? Our center. Our place of groundedness, of connection, of trust in some ultimate purpose or pattern. Success and failure, fortune and misfortune, happiness and sadness will come and go. Who are we to judge such things?
I find myself wanting to Christianize this very Buddhist story, not by framing bad fortune as the result of human sin or good fortune as redemption, but rather by digging down into that farmer’s “maybe.” What resources does he draw from to maintain that equanimity? The rare times I take what life throws me without judgment or emotional upheaval, I lean on faith: God is behind this. I have faith that God, and good, emerges regardless. Sometimes—most times—the good isn’t recognizable; it’s not what I think it should be. I have faith in a good beyond human reckoning.
The Zen farmer draws from a well quite different from mine. But we both try to live in a story outside the obvious. That this story even exists fills me with hope.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew