Ask Dr. Mike: A “Maybe So, Maybe Not” New Year

Ask Dr. Mike: A “Maybe So, Maybe Not” New Year

A Parable and Some Thoughts for a Happy New Year.

One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he left his horse loose to go the mountains and live out the rest of its life.

Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. How unfortunate you are!” You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Maybe so, maybe not…we shall see”

Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering on the mountainside. He came back with twelve wild younger horses, which followed the old horse into the corral.

Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. “How fortunate you are they exclaimed. You must be very happy!” Again, the farmer softly said: “Maybe so, maybe not….we shall see.”

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one, the villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune. “Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You’ll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad” they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Maybe so, maybe not …we shall see”.

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that all of the young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army. As it happened, the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. In the tea house, the villagers again commented “What very good fortune you have!” as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Maybe so, maybe not…we shall see” replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed, but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you”! But the old farmer simply replied, “Maybe so, maybe not…we shall see.”

As it turned out, the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not…we shall see.”

This ancient Chinese parable is believed to be over 2000 years old, but its message is as relevant today as it was then.

In my opinion, there are several important messages or interpretations to the parable that are worthy of consideration as we get ready to kick off 2017.

God is in control.

The old farmer in the parable was not in control of the events – positive or negative – that impacted his life. He thought and stated, “Maybe so, maybe not…we shall see” as his life unfolded because he wisely knew that there was no way for him to accurately ascribe meaning to any given moment because he could not foresee what would be coming next; he wasn’t in charge of his life, so he didn’t lose himself to negative thoughts or feelings (or even overly positive ones) when things happened. Research has shown that believing in God, a Higher Power or something beyond ourselves (e.g., the energy of the universe or even nature) can serve to decrease stress and provide purpose and meaning to life.

Take a long-term view during upsetting moments.

It’s easy to worry about things that we can’t control in a given moment, and it’s also easy to react or over react to people or situations that upset us. However, excessive worry, sadness, anxiety, anger or dwelling on the past are a waste of time and energy, and if we give into our negative emotions too much, things can become distorted and our problems can get worse. Keep in mind that while we often can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we choose to manage our thoughts, emotions and responses to our problems. So, the next time you find yourself making a mountain out of a mole hill, try instead to take a long term view since today’s bad moment or event can later become a blessing in disguise.

Strive to be accepting and moderate.

In life, there will always be lucky and unlucky, good and bad, fortunate and unfortunate; upsetting moments are not static but ever changing, evolving and incomplete. However, accepting this reality and not trying to read into, judge or influence people or situations that upset us takes great effort, practice and emotional maturity. The old farmer’s even or moderate approach to the situations he found himself in, alongside his attitude of acceptance, always served him well.

Every January as many as 45% of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only about 8% actually succeed in achieving them. Oftentimes that’s because our expectations for change aren’t reasonable and nor is our approach. So, this year why not try something new — instead of attacking the behaviors you want to change about yourself or improve upon, how about focusing instead on living life more like the old farmer.

Take the good and the bad in stride, don’t judge or influence things to ease or rush through your upset, be even tempered and moderate, don’t become overly attached to an upsetting event or situation, and have an open and curious mind to what is coming next.

Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.