This story is based on a Chinese parable. According to Jim May, an Illinois based storyteller, it is ingrained enough in Chinese culture that during times of loss the “lost horse” is often referred to. So far my few sample data points (responses from friends from Hong Kong and Beijing) have not corroborated this claim.
I’ll keep asking around, though – China is a big country.
farmer was mending his fence when his neighbor came calling. In response to his neighbor's quizzical expression, the farmer explained that his horse had escaped the night before.
The neighbor's face fell at the news -- this was the farmer’s sole work animal, which he could not afford to replace, and that he relied on for help with many critical chores. "Oh no! I am so sorry for your loss. That is terrible!"
The farmer just shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe. Who knows?"
The neighbor was shocked. How could the farmer not be certain this was bad news? Thinking his friend was clearly not thinking straight, the neighbor excused himself and went home.
A week passed. Sitting on the farmer’s front porch, visiting, the neighbor spotted the wayward horse nudging the unlatched gate open and stepping back onto the farm. His delight doubled when he saw the horse had a companion following close behind. She was obviously wild, which was better news yet – this meant she did not belong to someone else.
The neighbor could hardly contain himself -- excitement for his friend’s good fortune bubbled out of him. The farmer’s work would be cut in half, and maybe there would be a colt come spring! "I am so happy for you, friend!” he beamed at the farmer. “This is absolutely wonderful."
The farmer once again shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe. Who knows?"
The neighbor didn't know what to make of this. How could the farmer not be certain this was good news? Slightly annoyed that his friend did not embrace his good luck with both arms, the neighbor excused himself and went home.
The farmer’s young son took a great interest in the new horse. Unfortunately, while working diligently to tame her one day, he fell off her back and badly injured his leg. The resulting doctor's house call ended with a grim diagnosis: the leg would never properly heal. The boy would be lame for the rest of his life.
News spread quickly and the neighbor rushed over to console the farmer. The farmer’s son would not be able to help around the farm in the same capacity ever again. Would he ever be able to marry, raise a family, and take care of his father when his father grew too old to take care of himself? Not knowing what to say, he offered, "Friend, I feel for you. This is such a tragedy."
The farmer shrugged his shoulders yet again. "Maybe. Who knows?"
The neighbor thought that the farmer must surely be in denial of some sort. Of course this was bad news! Unsure how to provide solace to a man who did not seem to think he needed it, the neighbor excused himself and went home.
Years passed. A war broke out and all able-bodied young men were mandated to join the army. Since the farmer’s son was lame, he was allowed to stay on at the farm.
Unable to cope with the sight of his own son being led off to fight, the neighbor went to the farmer to congratulate him that his son would get to avoid the perils of war. “I am glad to hear your boy will get to stay home,” the neighbor said quietly. “Surely, this is a blessing for you.”
The farmer, knowing the neighbor was struggling with his own loss, still shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows?”
For once, the neighbor took comfort in these words and sat with his friend for the remainder of the evening. When he finally went home, he went home in peace.