A person on a horse at sunset.

Chinese Farmer Refuses to Be Sad about Lost Horse

What a farmer’s stoicism can teach you about judging yourself and others.

It’s not often that two spiritual leaders sit down for a chat. It’s even rarer that they do it on the record, willing to share their talk with the world over.

Yet that’s what happened some six years ago when the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu got together. What came of the experience was a book. Aptly named, The Book of Joy, the two leaders – with the loving prodding of Douglas Carlton Abrams – spoke in-depth on how to create a joy-filled existence for yourself.

The leaders touched on powerful topics like suffering, loneliness, and fear. They also touched on things like perspective and acceptance. And that is where a Chinese farmer comes into play.


The neighbor’s assessment

In response to something the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were discussing, the narrator recalled a story. One that explained how difficult it is to view things as strictly good or strictly bad. Because often, one leads to the other.

He notes that, “(Their point) reminded one of the famous Chinese story about the farmer whose horse runs away. His neighbors are quick to comment on his bad luck. The farmer responds that no one can know what is good and what is bad. When the horse comes back with a wild stallion, the neighbors are quick to comment, this time talking about the farmer’s good luck.

Again, the farmer replies that no one can know what is good and what is bad.

When the farmer’s son breaks his leg trying to tame the wild stallion, the neighbors now are certain of the farmer’s bad luck. Again, the farmer says that no one knows. When war breaks out, all the able-bodied young men are conscripted into battle except the farmer’s son, who was spared because of his broken leg.”


Judgment is bad for your ego

The farmer didn’t judge the situation. Nor did she allow the judgments of others to influence her opinion. Instead, she accepted her reality. She didn’t fight it or complain about it. Because she knew what the other villagers did not: that bad things can often be good things in disguise. And good things may, in fact, be bad.

As humans, we like to judge. Or rather, to be more specific, I like to judge. I’m a judgmental person. It is a character trait I possess. It’s caused many an issue for me and I’m working on it. That said, one problem with being judgmental is that you’re often wrong.

In the story above, the villagers’ assessments were consistently incorrect.

They said the horse running away was a bad thing. When the stallion arrived they said it was a good thing. That is, until the son broke his leg. Then it was a bad thing. With each new action, they responded with a label. And with each new turn of events, they looked foolish and reversed their diagnosis. Meanwhile, the farmer wasted no time on the matter. She accepted things as they were.

When you judge something, you label it. Often incorrectly. If you’re the type that likes to be right, then you’re better off hedging your bets. Accept things as they are so that you’re always on the right side.


Judgment is bad for their feelings

Another problem with being judgmental is that it is hurtful to the person being judged.

On a trip once, I made a pointed comment to a friend about his frequent smoking. He got defensive and lashed out at me. I immediately apologized for upsetting him and tried to smooth things over. Even so, it was awkward for some time after.

I was judgmental and he didn’t like it. Rightfully so.

Would the farmer have acted the way I did? Doubtful. Quoting from the story, her thought on the matter would have been, “No one can know what is good and what is bad.” Were she in my position, she would have made no comment at all. She would have just accepted the situation, and my friend, as is. She would have spared him her harsh words, not out of passivity, but out of a lack of knowing.

Who is she to say whether his smoking is good or bad? What she may deem a bad action may lead to something good. Maybe the smoking will cause him to sleep well that night and feel great the next day, thus making future good decisions for him even easier.


The appropriate time to step in

There’s no way to tell whether something is good or bad so there’s no use in judging it. Instead, accept the action for what it is. If my friend came to me to stop smoking, that’s one thing. If he asked me for a loan to continue the habit, that’s another. But if he is perfectly fulfilled in his choices, I am in no position to claim whether it is right or wrong.

I know that is a tough piece of advice to follow.

It is easy to judge. Far too easy. It is much harder to accept someone as they are. Consider the feelings of the judged though. Of the person you are finding fault in. Put yourself in their shoes. Surely you’ve been judged before. I certainly have. And I remember how it feels. I remember the feelings of shame and guilt.

You don’t want to put that on someone else. So from the perspective of the other, accept things as they are so as not to put someone down.


Move forward with acceptance

I wrote this article as a reminder to myself as much as I wrote it as a lesson for you. Know that when you pass judgment, two things happen:

  1. You are often wrong.
  2. You make someone feel bad.

Either way, you lose. So when you next find yourself judging someone, remember the farmer who stoically proclaimed that, “No one can know what is good and what is bad.” Practice accepting people, things, and situations as they are. Not as you wish they were. It will take practice. It will take a few tries to get used to not-judging, but everyone will benefit from your effort.

And, hey, maybe they’ll come to you for advice on kicking the habit. But until then, be like the farmer and practice acceptance. After all, who are we to know what is inevitably good or bad?

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