Who Knows If It’s Good or Bad?


By Stephen Fox

It is early on a spring morning and the farmer arises, eats his breakfast and goes to the barn to harness his horse to the plow to begin the spring planting.  When he arrives at the barn, he discovers the barn door open and his one horse the one he needs to plow his fields, is gone and is nowhere to be found.

A neighbor of the farmer hears of this development and hurries over to offer his sympathies and condolences, because as everyone knows, without a horse, there is no plowing, no planting and no harvest.

Im so sorry to hear of your bad news!” exclaims the neighbor.  What a terrible and calamitous development, there doesnt appear that there is anything you can do to avoid a very dark future.”

The farmer listened to his neighbor, took a breath and said, Who knows if it is good or bad.”

The next morning the farmer returned to the barn to clean out the stall, and once again he found the barn door open.  He enters the barn and finds that his one horse has returned, and that his horse has brought seven more horses with him!

The neighbor, hearing of this news hurries over to see this development for himself and to offer his congratulations to the farmer.

What good luck! What a fortuitous event! You are truly blessed!” exclaimed the neighbor, “Now you will be able to plow more land, plant more crops and a great fortune will be yours!”

The farmer listened to his neighbor, took a breath and said, Who knows if it is good or bad?”

A week later, the farmers son was in the barn harnessing one of the new horses to the plow.  The horse was not used to this and in his anxiety kicked out his hind hoof, catching the farmers sons knee and shattered it.

The neighbor, who I am beginning to think is a bit of a busybody, rushed over to the farmers house once again.  What a tragedy!” he moans. You will never be able to finish your plowing or harvesting without the help of your son.”

The farmer listened to his neighbor, took a breath and said, Who knows if it is good or bad?”

Still sometime later the farmer is taking his midday meal in the kitchen when there is a heavy, loud pounding on the door. The farmer opens the door to find a squad of the kings soldiers who are there to conscript the farmers son for the war with another kingdom and they demand that the farmer turn over his son to them.  The farmer bids them to enter the house and takes them to the bed where his son lies incapacitated by the injury to his knee.  The soldiers see that the son is unfit to serve in the Kings army and leave.

As expected, the neighbor hears of this turn of events and rushed over to the farmers house.  Oh, what luck you have had,” he says, So many young men will die in this war, and your son will be spared!”

The farmer listened to his neighbor, took a breath and said, Well, you know what he said, Who knows if it is good or bad?”

And of course, the story of the farmer does not end with the son escaping death on a distant field of battle.  We dont know what comes next, whether it is “good or bad,” but we do know that there is no end to the story and that most of it is truly unknowable.

This is a story in the Taoist tradition. Patricia and I first heard this story told by a friend of ours as part of the teaching during our weekly meditation practice, and the refrain of the story, “Who knows if it is good or bad?” quickly took on a role in our conversation as in this example:

Facing me (in a voice of irritation): I took the truck in for the state inspection today and it needs about $800 worth of work.”

Patricia: Who knows if it is good or bad?

As I live with this story – two questions come to my mind.  The first one….. “How was the farmer able to have this stance toward events that were in large part, difficult.   How was he able to respond:  “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

The second question….How can I relate the farmer’s question, his stance toward life events, to my life?

Let’s consider the first question I just proposed.  What enables the farmer to ask the question in response to “good” or “bad” moments: “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”  In essence, the farmer was able to let go of knowing the outcome.  How did he do that?

Most of us divide up our life experiences into those we like and those we dont — those that feel good, those that dont.  How we perceive our life experiences tends to be ego driven.   We build our life stories around ideas of I, Me and mine.  The good stories feed our egos.  The bad stories threaten our sense of self.

Why is this so much a part of our thinking?  It has been suggested that it is because we need to feel in control, to be important, and to be the center of our world.   The ability to let go of knowing the outcome of a life event means dropping these ego driven characteristics.

The farmer has let go of these ideas of control, importance and being the center of the world.  He is able to embrace the idea of uncertainty, or unknowing. 

He has no idea how any of what is happening: the loss of his horse, the return of his horse accompanied by the other horses, the injury to his son and his escape from conscription, how it will all evolve.  He doesn’t seem to think about it, to dwell upon it.  The farmer gives himself over to the uncertainty, the unknowing.

In the Christian tradition, we might think of it as the farmer giving himself over to God; he lives that part of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done, and he does so without thought, and he seems quite comfortable in doing so.

The farmer is also familiar with the idea of impermanence. He knows that no matter what each moment brings, it will fade and a new moment will arise.

Now for the second question:  How can I relate “Who knows if it’s good or bad?” to my own life?

I believe we all have moments in our life stories that we can identify as initially difficult or pleasant.  What the farmer’s story suggests is that the deeper meaning of the moment is not readily apparent.

Lets take a moment of silence too reflect on our own life stories and consider an experience that turned out quite different than it appeared it might at the beginning.

Let me offer an example from my own life.


In my early thirties, I left my job as a psychiatric social worker at a community mental health center to pursue a career in sales. My decision was driven by my desire to make more money, achieve success and recognition and, most important, to gain the approbation and love from my father, who was himself a successful businessman. As a salesman, I was a complete failure.  The demands of selling simply did not match my nature, and as a result, within a few years I was significantly depressed.  I spent most of my time in bed reading Russian novels.  I left that job and returned to healthcare, and with the help of a few people, I was able to reconstruct a new life for myself.

It was a very painful time.  Looking back on those years I still remember how painful it was.  I learned important lessons from that failure, that are captured in the final verse of “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” as written by Bob Dylan.

That verse goes like this:

The moral of the story, the moral of the song is

That One should never be where one does not belong

So if you see your neighbor carrying something

Help him with his load

And don’t go mistaking Paradise

For that home across the road.

These words have important meaning for me.

Looking back on those days, I was someplace where I did not belong.  My decision to go there was ego driven.  I thought I’d find paradise with money and success.  Instead I ended up profoundly depressed with no end in sight.   And I was not able to think myself out of this situation.

But with the help of others, and a mentor who entered my life, things changed.  I learned about impermanence, that time passes and things change, and I eventually moved beyond this troubled state.

Like the farmer, I learned that I am not important, not always in control, and not the center of the world.

What is left in the absence of these beliefs?

At first a void, an emptiness that can be frightening.  Then a calmness a stillness, followed by an awareness of a deeper love.  A love that comes through the heart, not the head.  For me, I sense God’s presence in my life.  The pain of the experience opened my heart allowing me to move forward even though I didn’t know what to do.

During the meditation, we are encouraged to stop thinking and stay in the present moment by focusing on our breath.  Thinking can be a distraction.  It leads us away from God, back to the ego.  Our thoughts focus on the I, Me, Mine.  Our thoughts create stories about ourselves, with ourselves at the center of the story.  One thought leads to another and pretty soon we have left the present and are back in this world with all its challenges.  In Christian terms….We have drifted away from God.

A primary teaching in the meditation course we have been taking is….Let the thoughts go, let the feelings be.

As the feelings fade away, what is left is a stillness, a calmness that resides inside each and everyone of us.  When we experience this stillness we are returning to God; the God that flows through all of creation and is within each and everyone of us.

What a blessing it is to approach God through the simplicity of the heart, to experience God’s love, not by knowledge, but by feeling.

The farmer in our story understands this: whatever happens he lives in God’s love, and he knows that it is good.

Certainly the last 18 months defined by COVID have tested our ability to let go of control, of our need to solve the problem and our desire to determine the outcome.   It has also taught us about the impermance of life.  Patricia and I developed a practice of walking Ocean Avenue, where we witnessed the reliability of the beautiful, natural world to be there for us to witness, as life unfolded in a confusing, frightening manner.

An example.  Patricia was planning to travel to Nashville in early March to deliver a leadership presence program at Vanderbilt University.  Days before she was to board the plan – a few days before March 13 when the country shut down — the program was cancelled.  At the time the client communicated that they were looking a rescheduling the program for that May.  Clearly, most of us had no idea what new reality was upon us, and it appears that this period of uncertainty continues as the Delta variant takes hold. 

As I close this reflection, I invite you to go through your week with an awareness of the unknowing.  And consider…..when  can I let go the need to know the outcome,  of the need to figure it out, of the need to control?  How might this help me be with God’s presence more fully?