We Can Never Know Whether Something Is Good or Bad, and That’s Okay
The Parable of the Chinese Farmer is a 2,000-year-old Taoist tale that highlights how our obsession with evaluating outcomes can be a deceiving diversion that distracts us from action and inner peace:
Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse. It ran away. And all the neighbors came around that evening and said, “that’s too bad.”
And he said, “maybe.”
The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came around and said, “why that’s great, isn’t it?”
And he said, “maybe.”
The next day his son attempted to tame one of these horses, and was riding it, and was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors came around in the evening and they said, “well, that’s too bad, isn’t it?”
And the farmer said, “maybe.”
The next day conscription officers came around looking for people to join the army and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbors came around that evening and they said, “well, isn’t that wonderful?”
And the farmer said, “maybe.”
According to British philosopher Alan Watts, this parable suggests that “the whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune. Or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”
Watts is right. In my own life, I’ve discovered that even those life events that seem clearly tragic, can bear a hidden blessing. My father’s death devastated me, but it also enabled me to empathize with others in a way that I couldn’t previously understand. Being able to say “I’ve lost a parent too” holds much more emotional capital with people than “I’m sorry, that must be really hard for you.”
And, life events that seem clearly blessed can carry significant tragedy. Attending a prestigious university was a tremendous triumph for me, but it precluded me from other socially and intellectually diverse experiences, keeping me caged inside a false sense of knowledge about the world, including access to a richer realm of possibilities in my private life. Sure, it’s stimulating to be surrounded by people who can quote Schopenhauer and Levinas, but one’s scope is limited when most their classmates share a common religious heritage and similar socio-economic bracketing. Sadly, alternative and marginalized voices remained underrepresented, silent, and certain needed social changes continued unaddressed.
Still, I hold no regrets about choices I’ve made in life. What utility resides in regret?
When we ignore the lesson of the Chinese farmer—that establishing certainty about the future is a fool’s errand—that is when anxiety and suffering arise. Many of our deepest anxieties and suffering stem from a lack of conviction about and concern over whether the choices we make or the things that happen to us are good or bad. But, as the parable points out, putting much stock in our evaluation of particular life events is a rather preposterous human ritual. What is tragedy in one moment turns to triumph in another.
Putting much stock in our evaluation of particular life events is a rather preposterous human ritual. What is tragedy in one moment turns to triumph in another.
Anxiety exists in the space between the present and the terrible things we imagine could happen in the future. Suffering festers in those spaces, multiplying when we entertain bad outcomes. We experience analysis paralysis, attempting to see through every possible result so that we may avoid pain, but this only exacerbates the suffering. And, we trick ourselves into delaying action so that we may avoid, indefinitely, the bad outcomes. This suffering-avoidance strategy is sure to fail.
The Way Through
However, we can find peace in the middle of suffering rather than exhausting our souls trying to avoid it and wrecking ourselves over whether we’ve made the good choice or bad choice. In a certain way, there’s no such thing as a wrong one, for decisions seem to just manifest from somewhere inside us, and we can see them coming. Watts remarked that “choice is the hesitancy before we make a decision.”
I’m not proposing that we jettison planning or reflection altogether, that we give up on hopes or dreams. Considering possible outcomes and determining which ones will most likely align with our desired goal is a useful endeavor to help us live meaningful lives. Otherwise, we’re just flotsam and jetsam.
But, we shouldn’t fret too much over the wrongness or rightness of any choice. We have no way to evaluate them with any absoluteness. That type of rationalistic pursuit leads us further away from the ground, into the cold, silent realm of cosmic abstraction, and it’s turtles all the way down.
Instead, I suggest we pursue experiences which both terrify and excite us. These twin pillars of vitality are sure to unlock the passion necessary to strengthen us when fear of making the wrong choice paralyzes us. And, they are sure to expose us to the adversity necessary for living a truly meaningful life. Happiness requires a certain degree of struggle, but which difficulties are we willing to sustain?
Mythologist Joseph Campbell articulated these sentiments with two famous adages: “follow your bliss” and “the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
For example, we can poison our time, counting the ways in which choosing to end a relationship will devastate us, deciding to stay with a person, worrying how the break-up will bring a new period of suffering in loneliness and lost companionship. Or, we can embrace the hope and weight of imminent decisions, and acknowledge that they will demand much of us.
We tend to want certainty and safety, even if that means avoiding the difficult decisions. It’s built into our DNA. But that isn’t the way through. Certainty is stagnation, status quo. It’s staying with somebody because at least you know they’ll always want to eat sushi or watch cheesy 90’s sitcoms with you. Safety is cowardice. It’s staying with a person you’re too scared to admit you don’t love because you know they’ll always be there with you. They’ll enable you to stay in a twisted sort of safe harbor.
We tend to want certainty and safety, even if that means avoiding the difficult decisions. It’s built into our DNA. But that isn’t the way through. Certainty is stagnation, status quo.
Campbell is also known for saying, “if the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” Your success will not look like your sister’s success, nor will it mirror those of your personal heroes. Taking the way through means acknowledging that we can’t know whether something is good or bad and then taking the next step anyways, making a “leap of faith,” as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described it. We must enter the void that transcends reason.
An ended relationship may be the death that gives birth to even greater companionship. Choosing to start a new business or creative project might mean living off Soylent and frozen burritos for a couple more years before finding some semblance of stability or being able to afford that dream hobbit hole we’ve all been wanting since 2001. But, if the experience before you is frightening and stirring, then the trail through the trees is true. Because, whatever the immediate outcome of the decision you’ve made, good or bad, the wisdom of the Chinese farmer should ring: “maybe, but we shall see.”
Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute!
He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.
3 thoughts on “We Can Never Know Whether Something Is Good or Bad, and That’s Okay”
Beautiful, thank you.
Thank you for this story it is enlightening
Nice piece. As I understand this matter, in order to determine whether something is “good,” the first thing we have to understand is what sort of good we are talking about: do we mean morally good, prudentially good (i.e., good FOR some person or group), aesthetically good, gastronomically good, etc. ?For each type may result in a different answer to this question.
In this essay, you seem to me mostly to be talking about prudential goods. So, for example, you ask if a really sad event, like the death of a loved one, can be good FOR a person who is suffering through it. Once that determination is settled on, I think there’s another important distinction to make–that between ex ante and ex post prudential goods. That is, obtaining some things might be good for us in the sense that they get us what we want (Yay!!) but–like finding an addictive drug that someone has been searching for–NOT be good for us in the long run.
Anyhow, I absolutely agree with you that we can never know for sure whether some event will be prudentially good for us over the course of our lifetime. We can only make estimates based what we little know about ourselves and the world and its causal laws. Unfortunately, that is always a very limited perspective.
I hope 2023 treats you well.