Many years ago, in a poor Chinese village, there lived a farmer and his son.
His only material possession, apart from the land and a small hut, was a horse he had inherited from his father.
One day, the horse ran away, leaving the man with no animal with which to work the land.
His neighbours, who respected him for his honesty and diligence, went to his house to say how much they regretted his loss. He thanked them for their visit, but asked:
“How do you know that what happened was a misfortune in my life?”Someone muttered to a friend: “He obviously doesn’t want to face facts, but let him think what he likes, after all, it’s better than being sad about it.”
And the neighbours went away again, pretending to agree with what he had said.
A week later, the horse returned to its stable, but it was not alone; it brought with it a beautiful mare for company.
The inhabitants of the village were thrilled when they heard the news, for only then did they understand the reply the man had given them, and they went back to the farmer’s house to congratulate him on his good fortune.
“Instead of one horse, you’ve got two. Congratulations!” they said.
“Many thanks for your visit and for your solidarity,” replied the farmer. “But how do you know that what happened was a blessing in my life?”
The neighbours were rather put out and decided that the man must be going mad, and, as they left, they said: “Doesn’t the man realise that the horse is a gift from God?”
A month later, the farmer’s son decided to break the mare in. However, the animal bucked wildly and threw the boy off; the boy fell awkwardly and broke his leg.
The neighbours returned to the farmer’s house, bringing presents for the injured boy. The mayor of the village solemnly presented his condolences to the father, saying how sad they all were about what had occurred.
The man thanked them for their visit and for their kindness, but he asked:
“How do you know that what happened was a misfortune in my life?”
These words left everyone dumbstruck, because they were all quite sure that the son’s accident was a real tragedy. As they left the farmer’s house, they said to each other: “Now he really has gone mad; his only son could be left permanently crippled, and he’s not sure whether the accident was a misfortune or not!”
A few months went by, and Japan declared war on China. The emperor’s emissaries scoured the country for healthy young men to be sent to the front.
When they reached the village, they recruited all the young men, except the farmer’s son, whose leg had not yet mended.
None of the young men came back alive. The son recovered, and the two horses produced foals that were all sold for a good price.
The farmer went to visit his neighbours to console and to help them, since they had always shown him such solidarity.
Whenever any of them complained, the farmer would say: “How do you know that what happened was a misfortune?”
If someone was overjoyed about something, he would ask: “How do you know that what happened was a blessing?”
And the people of the village came to understand that life has other meanings that go beyond mere appearance.