The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Misfortune and Prosperity

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity.”

So said Seneca, a Roman philosopher born in Spain one year before the birth of Christ. He believed that virtue alone was sufficient for a happy life. Regardless of whether you or I agree with him, it is an intriguing thought. He wrote much more, too, on how to live in a challenging world.

Enough said by me. For more, read Seneca.