I have always been quite fascinated with the beliefs we hold as humans and how they carry us through our lives. All the things we believe in – where do they originate from and how are they shaped over time?
One of the most powerful stories I have heard that made me understand how detrimental or beneficial our beliefs can be, is a Chinese fable about a farmer.
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
What I found so powerful about this story is how the farmer is able to separate his emotional responses from the incident as such. While everyone else held the belief that something was particularly good or bad, he didn’t allow himself to make such judgement because he decided to not hold that same belief.
Most of us go through life under the delusion that it is certain people, situations, or events that make us sad, anxious or angry. When you’re irritated by a colleague at the next desk who won’t stop talking, you naturally assume that the colleague is the source of the irritation. When your flight has a massive delay, you surely surmise that the airline is the source of your misfortune.
If you look closer at your experiences though, you will eventually be forced to conclude that none of those experiences is negative in itself. Indeed, nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things.
The colleague is not irritating per se, but because of your belief that getting your work finished without interruption is an important goal. The airline is not source of your misfortune, but it’s your belief that you are entitled to be arriving somewhere at a certain time.
If you didn’t judge interruptions to be bad, would you be annoyed by it? Obviously not. If you didn’t put so much value on being on time, would you allow yourself to be so consumed by it? Surely not. As Shakespeare made Hamlet say: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
This is the mechanism of how stress arises. Even losing your home and your job or a loved one, from this perspective, is not a negative event in itself. In itself, it’s merely an event. To which you might respond: but what if it really is bad? Lacking a home and an income, you might perish from starvation or exposure. Surely that would be bad? But the same relentless logic applies. What makes the prospect of starvation or exposure distressing in the first place? The beliefs that you hold about the disadvantages of death.
I am not trying to argue that these things are not distressful events that can have far-reaching consequences in your life. My goal is merely dissecting the beliefs we hold and hopefully help you understand that judgements are in our power, and that our emotions are determined by our judgements.
We can always step back and ask: is it other people/situations/events that bother me? Or the judgment I make about other people/situations/events?