Once upon a time in Chi, there lived a farmer and his son in a poor village. They worked their crops diligently, but life was hard. One day the farmer’s only horse ran away. He was left with no animal to till the land.
Upon hearing the news, the neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Perhaps,” the farmer replied.
The neighbors thought the farmer did not want to face the misfortune that had befallen him. One of them muttered to his friend while taking leave: “He is keeping his feelings to himself. He doesn’t want to go about bemoaning his loss.”
A week later, the horse returned to its stable, with three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed. They now thought they understood why the old farmer seemed so unmoved. Possibly he was experienced enough to know that horses do disappear occasiolly to seek out their own kind.
So they went back to the farmer’s house to congratulate him on his good fortune. “Instead of one horse, you’ve got four. Congratulations!” they said.
“Perhaps,” answered the farmer.
This time the neighbors were rather put out by the laconic reply. As they left, they said: “Doesn’t he know how to count his blessings, that God has added three more horses to the one he already had?”
A few days afterwards, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. But the animal bucked wildly and threw him off. The boy fell awkwardly and broke his leg.
The neighbors came again to offer their sympathies, saying how sad they all were about the mishap putting him to so much trouble.
“Perhaps,” replied the old man.
The neighbors now became quite sure the farmer was beginning to lose his mind. His only son could be left permanently crippled, yet he seemed unsure whether the accident was a misfortune or not!
Two weeks later, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing the old farmer’s son lying in bed with his broken leg in splints, they passed him by. Most other young men in the village were sent to the front to fight. For the entire village, times of great anxiety had begun.
The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out for him. But he only replied: “Perhaps...”
Much sadder and wiser now, the neighbors no longer wondered at the farmer’s refusal to consider anything as misfortune or blessing. They too had come to understand that life operated mysteriously, that whatever happened had meanings which go beyond mere appearance.