Saeongjima: Patience Reveals Bad Luck From Good Luck

"Bad" luck can bring good luck; "good" luck can bring bad luck.

Posted Mar 19, 2015

Have you ever found yourself thanking the fates when reflecting on a misfortune—because it eventually led to a good thing?

Have you ever regretted a good thing—because it led to a misfortune?

Does this pattern of unexpected eventual outcomes occur often enough that you stop judging the full effects of either bad or good fortune until time passes? 

The parable of the Chinese Farmer and his Horse captures the wisdom of judging events in this way. There are many versions, but I like a Sino-Korean one (which I have adapted below from a text written by Eun-Joo Lee):

Long ago, in a village on the northern border area of China, an old man lived alone with his son. The old man owned a few horses, and these were all his possessions.

One day, one of the horses crossed the border and ran away to the north. Everyone in the village consoled him, saying, "You must be sad at having lost a good horse."

But the old man laughed and said, "It can't be helped. All kinds of things are bound to happen in life. I suppose when something bad happens, then something good may happen too."

A while later, the runaway horse returned to the old man's home. But instead of returning alone, it brought a magnificent horse along with it.

This time, everyone in the village envied him and said, "What luck! You must be very happy to get such a wonderful horse for free."

Again, the old man laughed, saying, "Well, I'm not sure this is a good thing. When a good thing happens, a bad thing might happen too."

Months later, while riding the new horse, the old man's son fell off the horse. His life was spared, but he injured his leg and became lame. 

The people in the village, their tongues clicking, pitied the old man and said, "You must be very sad that your son, once so healthy, has become disabled overnight."

At this, the old man replied, "It can't be helped. And anyway, when something bad happens, then something good might happen too."

The following year, barbarians suddenly started a war, and all the young men of the village were recruited as soldiers. But the old man's son did not have to go to war because he was lame. Although many people lost their lives in the war, the old man's son lived to a healthy old age.

This parable is familiar enough to Koreans that they often say aloud the phrase "saeongjima" (say-ong-jay-mah), which literally means "the horse of an elderly person living on the border," when they experience an example in their own lives—especially when a bad thing has led to a good thing (such as when failing to obtain a coveted job ends up making one available for an even better job later on).

I've come across a number of interpretations of this parable. Some focus on the Taoist theme of acceptance of the good and bad events over which we have little control. Interestingly, in this interpretation, the old man (often given the name of "Sei Weng") uses a simpler response to the pity or envy of others, such as: "That's the way it is." Other interpretations, more like the Sino-Korean version above, focus on the value of bringing a stoical, patient approach to assessing the vagaries of good and bad fortune, with the old man giving this response: "Who can say what is good or bad?"

Most interpretations seem to give good and bad events equal focus. To me, the best practical value of the parable comes in encouraging patience in reacting to bad events. Since learning this parable, I have found myself saying "saeongjima" because, indeed, what had appeared to be a misfortune, after a while, led to something for which I am now grateful. It also turns out to be useful advice for anyone who has just suffered a setback, as it can encourage optimism, which is clearly a beneficial response. Avoid sounding like an illogical Pollyanna or Pangloss when you tell the parable, of course, but my experience is that it often fosters patience and perspective—even hope. 

Further Readings:

Carver, C.S, Scheier, M.F., & Segerstrom, S.C. (2010). Optimism. 

     Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 879–889. 

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