Bad Luck? Good Luck? It's Too Soon to Tell
By all conceivable metrics, 2020 has been a challenge. COVID-19 and its implications have wrought havoc on our plans, endangered our health as well as that of our loved ones, and physically divided us from our most precious relationships. 2020 has forcefully wrestled from us a sense of certainty in our future that we very likely took for granted before the pandemic, and has forced us all to reorganize our priorities in ways that we never anticipated having to.
2020 certainly has been a challenge thus far, however we are not constrained to think of these challenges as purely negative in their impacts on our life and wellbeing. The idea that we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond, is age-old wisdom, and well captured in ancient Buddhist and stoic philosophy, as well as more recent incantations:
Buddha (5th to 4th century BCE): "your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded"
Epictetus (50-135AD): "people are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them"
Shakespeare (1564-1616): "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"
A logic echoed in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) serenity prayer:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference"
With this idea in mind, the question becomes: how can we improve our 'views' on life's relentless challenges, and meet them with more serenity, courage, and wisdom? One step toward this is reserving judgement on the 'goodness' or 'badness' of what happens to us. An ancient example makes the point brilliantly and memorably:
A Chinese folktale tells of a farmer who had a prized horse - and one day that horse ran away. His neighbours gathered to commiserate his loss and express their sympathies for his terrible luck. The farmer commented "Is it bad luck? Is it good luck? It's too soon to tell". The neighbours leave, somewhat puzzled.
Several weeks later, that prized horse came back to the farmstead, and brought with it a dozen wild horses. His neighbors gather to congratulate him on his fantastic windfall. The farmer again responds by saying "Is it good luck? Is it bad luck? It's too soon to tell". The neighbours once again leave feeling confused about his unconventional perspective.
Several weeks later, one of the wild horses falls on the farmer's son, who had been working to tame the wild horses, and badly breaks one of his legs. The neighbours again congregate to console the farmer, and the farmer again questions the valence of his fate: "Is it bad luck? Is it good luck? It's too soon to tell".
Another few weeks pass, and a war breaks out in the area. Local warlords draft all able-bodied young men to fight, and the farmer's son is spared due to his broken leg. The fighting kills many of the sons of the village, and the farmer's neighbours again comment on the farmer’s fantastic luck that his son was spared. His response by this point is predictable: "Is it good luck? Is it bad luck? It's too soon to tell".
The story could continue indefinitely, and is a fitting parable for the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, of our lives. When something demonstrably 'bad' happens to us (*ahem* 2020; COVID-19), there is every possibility that it will (eventually) bring about something good. How many times has this happened in your life already? How have the difficulties of your past made you a stronger, happier, or more fulfilled person today? How might the challenges of 2020 do the same? The point here is not to force an overly optimistic view of all things life throws our way, but rather to 1) temper our instinctive thoughts to immediately judge the 'badness' of what happens to us (serenity); 2) provide hope that good things can, and in some cases must, follow the bad (courage); and 3) always remind us that the vicissitudes, the ups and downs will continue regardless of our view of them (wisdom).
With these insights in hand, we can build back into our lives some of the certainty that 2020 has sought to take from us.