(Excerpted from Chapter 12 of Five Questions that Change Everything)
Many years ago, as this apocryphal story goes, there was a village in a barren land where survival was a full time job. Without horses to work the land and do heavy tasks, people would not last long. One day, a family in the village left the gate open and their old horse was able to hobble off into the wilderness. When they heard about what had happened, all the villagers came rushing to the family’s place, saying, “What a terrible thing! Now what will you do?!” The family had a grandmother, a wise old crone, who looked at the grieving neighbors and said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”
The villagers shook their heads and wandered back to their homes muttering about how the old woman had lost her marbles (or whatever it was people back then would have muttered).
Several days later, however, the old horse came trotting over the hill— with three wild horses in tow! The news spread rapidly and soon all the villagers were again standing around the family’s gate saying things like, “How did you know it was going to be good news? Isn’t this wonderful? Now you have four horses; you’re the richest family in our village!” To which the crone responded, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”
Again the villagers returned to their homes grumbling at the perverse attitude of the old woman.
The next day, as the family’s teenage son was out trying to break one of the wild horses, he was thrown and broke his hip in several places, crippling him for life. As word got around, the villagers came trooping around again, saying, “You were right, old woman! It was a tragedy that you got those horses. Now your grandson has been crippled for life. Awful, just awful.” Again the old woman said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”
By this time the villagers were getting used to her strange response, but it didn’t stop them from wondering again whether she was really ‘all there.’
Some time later a local warlord came through the village dragooning every able-bodied young man to go and fight in a battle from which few would return. He took every single young man in the village … except for the grandson with the broken hip. At this the villagers swarmed back, shouting, “You were right! It was a good thing that your grandson broke his hip! At least now you have him around to help. What a wonderful thing!” Again, the wise old crone said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”
Conclusions: What stop us from learning
When does this story end? Right. It never ends. We are inclined, as humans, to decide immediately whether some event is good news or bad news, long before we have the perspective that comes with hindsight. The wise old crone had something we all need to develop: a way of seeing or ‘holding’ events in a kind of inquiry or neutral mode long enough for both the upside and the downside of the inherent polarity to manifest.
You might wonder what is wrong with the built-in penchant for making instant judgments. You do it all the time. Isn’t it a crucial skill? Yes, but the instant you come to a conclusion about something—or someone— learning stops. You become unable to see anything different from your judgment. In fact, the stronger your emotional reaction, the more distorted your perception. Falling in love with someone is just as much about this phenomenon as having an instant dislike for them. As soon as we make the judgment—good news or bad news—we lose everything else about that person or situation that doesn’t fit our assessment.
As you saw in working with your Shadow Character, there is a way to take even the worst experience of your life and find the upside, and vice versa. When you can generate an open spirit of inquiry regarding what happens to you, every experience becomes an opportunity for growth and development—and maximum contribution to others and to life.