ifindkarma. elegance is refusal.

June 1, 2010

We’ll see.

We believe in the interconnectedness of all things.

And all things are neither wonderful nor terrible. They just are.

This is the lesson in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War reflected in this story about a Zen master:

Gust Avrakotos: There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse!” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible!” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t ’cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” 

Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” 

It is tempting to rush to judgment about what’s happening in any given moment, rather than be patient about the uncertainty of the bigger picture’s context. Getting LOST in a particular incident — or series of cause-and-effects — prevents us from letting go and moving on to where we need to go.

This is embodied by the great tension that resides in the uncertainty between being and becoming.

It is long and hard work to see our lives as not a series of isolated incidents, but rather as an interconnected continuum that gradually thoroughly makes us who we are. This is my kung fu.

(Side note: in Chinese, “Kung fu” can be used in contexts completely unrelated to martial arts, and refers colloquially to any individual accomplishment or skill cultivated through long and hard work.)

The Zen master story from Charlie Wilson’s War is about the nature of uncertainties, and how humans are quick to judge an outcome before information is complete. It is based on a story by Max Lucado called “The Old Man and the White Horse” from In the Eye of the Storm (1991):

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village.  Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse.  Even the king coveted his treasure.  A horse like this had never been seen before – such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength. 

People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused.  “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them.  “It is a person.  How could you sell a person?  He is a friend, not a possession.  How could you sell a friend.”  The man was poor and the temptation was great.  But he never sold the horse. 

One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable.  All the village came to see him.  “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse.  We warned you that you would be robbed.  You are so poor.  How could you ever protect such a valuable animal?  It would have been better to have sold him.  You could have gotten whatever price you wanted.  No amount would have been to high.  Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded,  “Don’t speak too quickly.  Say only that the horse is not in the stable.  That is all we know; the rest is judgment.  If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed.  The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again.  “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone.  The rest I don’t know.  Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say.  All we can see is a fragment.  Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed.  They thought that the man was crazy.  They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money.  But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, and old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it.  He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty.  Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool. 

After fifteen days, the horse returned.  He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest.  Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him.  Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke.  “Old man, you were right and we were wrong.  What we thought was a curse was a blessing.  Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far.  Say only that the horse is back.  State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge.  How do you know if this is a blessing or not?  You see only a fragment.  Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge?  You read only one page of a book.  Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase.  Can you understand the entire phrase?”

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word.  All you have is one fragment!  Don’t say that this is a blessing.  No one knows.  I am content with what I know.  I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”

“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another.  So they said little.  But down deep, they knew he was wrong.  They knew it was a blessing.  Twelve wild horses had returned.  With a little work, the animals could be broken and trained and sold for much money. 

The old man had a son, an only son.  The young man began to break the wild horses.  After a few days, he fell from one of the horses and broke both legs.  Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and cast their judgments. 

“You were right,” they said.  “You proved you were right.  The dozen horses were not a blessing.  They were a curse.  Your only son has broken both his legs, and now in your old age you have no one to help you.  Now you are poorer than ever.”

The old man spoke again.  “You people are obsessed with judging.  Don’t go so far.  Say only that my son broke his legs.  Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse?  No one knows.  We only have a fragment.  Life comes in fragments.&rdquo

It so happened that a few weeks later the country engaged in war against a neighboring country.  All the young men of the village were required to join the army.  Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he was injured.  Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken.  There was little chance that they would return.  The enemy was strong, and the war would be a losing struggle.  They would never see their sons again.

“You were right, old man,” They wept.  “God knows you were right.  This proves it.  Your son’s accident was a blessing.  His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you.  Our sons are gone forever.”

The old man spoke again.  “It is impossible to talk with you.  You always draw conclusions.  No one knows.  Say only this.  Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not.  No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse.  No one is wise enough to know.  Only God knows.”

Sometimes we celebrate or curse the situation we find ourselves in, not realizing that this is a temporary place we have to go through to get to where we need to go.

Eminem reflects on his hard times in his new single, “I’m Not Afraid“:

Yeah, it’s been a ride,
I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one.

The things that happen to us are neither blessings nor curses. They help shape who we are. Resist the temptation to draw conclusions too quickly. LOOK closer.

We must learn from our past, be patient about our future, and be here now.

As for my current life situation — unemployed and uncertain about the future — we’ll see.

I’m not afraid.



  1. Not long ago, I stood on the edge of the cliffs by our house, thanking whomever for putting me through the crap of the past few years, as it’s propelled me to where I am today…. it’s hard to know why stuff happens to us, why we have to go through some things we never wanted to, but eventually, it always seems to make sense. Or perhaps I just want it to make sense, who knows…

    Comment by Anonymous — June 1, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  2. Francie, thank you for sharing that.We are the sum of everything we think and everything we do.That means all situations in our past make us who we now are, and prepare us for what comes next.It’s tough but important to remember this when times are tough.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 1, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  3. two thoughts.1- Charlie Wilson’s war is a great film. Nichols is a master, and it reminds me of the best <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_the_President's_Men">1970's political films</a>. 2- I like the spiritual nature of your recent posts. It is an uncertain time, in some of our lives, for our industry, for our nation, for the planet. Let’s hope that things go the right way: http://open.salon.com/blog/arthur_howe/2009/01/18/the_arc_of_the_universe_is_long_but_it_bends_towards_justice

    Comment by shanand — September 21, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  4. We are all reincarnations.http://www.facebook.com/adam.rifkin/posts/345923075423937

    Comment by Anonymous — December 29, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

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