There is an old and often retold story of a farmer whose only horse ran away. The evening that it happened, the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. “Your farm will suffer, and you cannot plow,” they said. “Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you.”
He said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The next day the horse returned and brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim at his good fortune. “You are richer than you were before!” they said. “Surely this has turned out to be a good thing for you, after all.”
He said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his leg, and he couldn’t work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the incident. “There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor,” they said. “Surely this is a terrible misfortune.”
The old farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came again, they said, “How fortunate! Things have worked out after all. Most young men never return alive from war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you!”
And the old man nodded, with gratitude for his son’s momentary safety, but also with the knowledge that he simply didn’t know what the future held. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
We will all experience wins and losses in our lives. And in the moment that something feels great or awful, we tend to forget that there will be more that follows. That “more” is usually something that we can’t predict or foresee.
For instance, major lottery winners are often perceived as lucky or fortunate. But the fact is that nearly one third of multimillion dollar lottery winners go bankrupt in just a few short years, since they are not accustomed to managing such wealth. In addition to the financial drama, they also tend to experience loneliness and depression at much higher rates than the general population since they tend to leave their communities and social networks for a “better life.” So are they lucky? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Conversely, we may see someone who is experiencing a loss. A loss of a job, a loss of a relationship, a loss of money, a loss of trust, a loss of a loved one. These all feel terrible in the moment, but may also force us to create a new life and a new version of ourselves. They can force us to grow. They may open our hearts and minds in ways that we never imagined. And when we look back on the loss experience, we’re often grateful – not for the loss itself of course – but for the fruit that we harvested from it. So, loss… terrible? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Whether we like it or not, life will keep handing us opportunities to learn, grow and experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings. Here are some ways to make it easier:
- Ride the wave. Whatever is coming up for you in the moment – joy, sadness, grief, anger, confusion – let it be. It usually won’t last long. Think of yourself as a surfer. When you see a big wave coming, don’t fight the ocean, and don’t imagine how many hours you can stand riding the wave. Just go with it for the seconds or minutes that it exists. I’m not big on feeling/expressing anger, but someone handed me that “gift” last week, and I rode the wave. All 30 seconds of it. Awesome.
- Practice mindfulness. Be fully in your experience. Take it all in. The sounds, the smells, the textures. Again, I had the chance to practice that right after the anger incident. I tried hard to stay present to everything – people’s words, eyes, care, touch. Beautiful. Even in the midst of something upsetting, we can experience the world around us in a way that is calming, enriching and helpful.
- Move. Go for a walk, run, play. Our bodies were designed to move, but most of us spend the majority of our days being sedentary. The more you move, the better you’ll feel.
- Practice receiving. Most of us are great givers – we give our time, effort, money, etc. But when it comes to graciously receiving, well… that’s a challenge. I know. I’ve been quite bad at this for most of my life. But I’m starting to find that amazing things happen when I’m able to be a good receiver, and simply say “that’s so kind, thank you.”
- Gratitude. Usually, I recommend starting and/or ending your day with the 5-good-things exercise. Simple and easy. But when you’re going through something big, kick that up a notch, and do it hourly. Again, simple. It will take just a few seconds, but will transform your day. Every hour, on the hour, list 5 big or small good things that happened, will happen or are happening.
Finally, whatever you’re going through, know that you’re not alone. You are surrounded by people and resources to help you through. Use them wisely. And receive graciously.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”