How often does the apparent misfortune of today turn out to be a blessing in disguise? Here’s a Chinese parable that illustrates the point1.

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Once there was a man and his son who lived close to the frontier, and it so happened that one of their horses ran away. After hearing the news, all the neighbors came by to console him for his misfortune. But his response was, “Why should I be quick to conclude this turn of events is unfortunate?”

A while later, the horse returned, accompanied by another fine horse. Everyone congratulated him on his good luck. Again, he responded, “Why should I be quick to conclude this turn of events is fortunate?”

His son loved to ride the horses. But one day, while trying to ride the new one, he fell off and broke his leg. The neighbors again came by to console the man. But he once more replied, “Why should I be quick to conclude this turn of events is unfortunate?”

Soon the land was plunged into war, and all able-bodied men were called to arms against the invading army. Most of those from the man’s village ended up dying in the fight. But because of the son’s injury, neither he nor his father was forced to go to war, and so both were spared.

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Unlike the original author of this story, I don’t believe “misfortune begets fortune, and fortune begets misfortune” without end—that one always begets the other. But I do see the value in remembering our limited scope of view. We don’t know the long-term impact of the events we experience. Today’s great break may seem like a curse tomorrow. And the misfortune of today may look quite different down the road.

  1. I’ve heard and seen many variations of this story. After doing some research, I found it’s derived from the Huai Nan Zi, chapter 18 (original text). This story is the source of the Chinese saying 塞翁失馬, 焉知非福, which corresponds to the English saying: “Every cloud has a silver lining. / A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.[return]