I see so much outrage on social media these days. Everyone seems convinced they’re right and somehow have a perfect understanding of what the future holds. They rant and rage at the world, and — surrounded by other ranters and ragers — instigate an environment of outrage and hopelessness. All the while, they’re blind to second-order effects and in some cases even basic information about the situation they’re ranting about.
When I see such raging self-assuredness, I’m reminded of the old Taoist story of the farmer and his son. For ancient rural Chinese families, sons were extremely important; having one or more sons to help with the fields was the difference between starving and thriving. So this is a story with life-or-death consequences. It goes something like this:
There was once an old man who worked his fields with his son. One day, their horse ran away. “How unfortunate!,” his neighbors said, “You must be distraught!” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.
Then a drove of wild horses came to the farmer’s land and the son domesticated the finest of them. “How lucky you are!” his neighbors said. “You now have a better horse than before.” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.
Then the son fell off the horse and broke his leg. “How unlucky you are!” his neighbors said, “Now you won’t be able to till the fields!” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.
Then the Emperor’s army came through to recruit young men for war. Because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he couldn’t join them. “How fortunate for you!” the farmer’s neighbors said, “Your son’s life will be spared!” “We’ll see,” said the farmer.
And on it goes.
The moral of this story is not to be passive in the face of adversity or good fortune, but rather to not get carried away with sorrow or elation by what happens. Things are always changing, and you can’t accurately predict what the effects will be of one turn or another. You may have ideas about what could happen, but you have no certainty. How you feel about what happens will have a great impact on your ability to respond — and to the quality of your life. Acting skillfully calls for equanimity, and cultivating equanimity is hard to do — especially when your way of living seems threatened.
What does the future hold in store for us? We’ll see. In the meantime, we’ll do our best given what we know now.