Blessing and misfortune – a Moral Tale

By | May 4, 2014

This is one of my favorite stories, a real Moral Tale. I used to use it with my students. It’s alternatively attributed to the Sufi, the Taoists, the followers, of Zen, and half a dozen other sources, but that really doesn’t matter. And like all good Moral Tales, it encourages us not to see the story as complete in itself, but as part of the larger continuity that we are privileged to share for a time.

I’m hoping that this story will serve as a preliminary thinkpiece for a forthcoming post I’m working on regarding success and failure. Also one on the role of Moral Tales and our purpose in the universe

Thanks to Paolo Coelho for the use of this text of the story.



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 neighbors, 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 neighbors 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 neighbors were rather put out and decided that the man must be going mad, and, as they left, they said: ‘Doesn’t the man realize 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 neighbors 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 neighbors 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.



Here’s my own summation of this Moral Tale; alternative lessons can be extracted, and I welcome your suggestions:

 In the long run, there is neither success nor failure – merely when you decide to stop keeping score.