Temperance of Thought: Maybe

This morning I had the pleasure of attending a Stake Conference broadcast for the 96 stakes in Arizona. The speakers were Elder Foster, Sister McConkie, Elder Christofferson, and President Uchtdorf – so yes, I thought it was great.

Elder Bradley Foster of the Seventy told a story that I have known and loved for as long as I can recall, but I have never heard it used in a church context. It is a parable from the Chinese Taoist faith. Here is a version similar to the one told this morning.


Chinese Father son

The story goes that one day the farmer’s horse ran away. His neighbor hears of his bad news and comes over to commiserate. “I hear that you lost your horse. That is bad news and bad luck.”

“Well, who knows?” said the farmer, “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.”

Well, the next day the farmer’s horse returns to his stable, but it has brought along a drove of wild horses it has befriended and who make themselves at home.

The neighbor across the way can’t believe what he hears about his friend. He decides to come over and congratulate him.

“This is such good news,” he says.

“Well, who knows,” said the farmer, “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.”

The next day the farmer’s son decided to ride one of the new wild horses, to break it in. As luck would have it, the son was thrown from the horse and broke his leg.

Of course, upon hearing this sad news, their neighbor came over to offer condolences. “This is such sad thing,” he said. “Your son has broken his leg. This is bad news.”

“Well, who knows,” said the farmer. “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.”

There were more well wishes and commiseration from his neighbor. The farmer offers this Taoist wisdom, “Who knows what is good and bad?”

On the following day soldiers came by commandeering an army. They took sons from most of the surrounding farms, but because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he could not go and was spared.


I have some pretty terrific kids. Most of them are now what we like to call “adults.” As adults, they find themselves in that time of transition where many crucial decisions are made, and directions determined. For example: Finding an EC, choosing a career, choosing education/post-graduate studies, where to live, etc. I remember those years as being filled with inexplicable joys, and crushing defeats – often on the same day.

Sometimes we get to make those types of decisions, sometimes we don’t. Often, the choice we would like to make is not offered to us, and we look at it as “bad news.” Other times, we get exactly what we want, and celebrate it as “good news.” Often, we make those declarations a bit too hastily.

One of the benefits of getting older is the gift of being able to look back at your life and experiences and evaluate them. Surprisingly, the “good” and the “bad” events that were so easily identifiable in my younger days are not necessarily so clear cut now. Some of the tragedies that were so consuming, so difficult, and seemingly so unfair, are now looked at with a little softer view. Without those tests, would I be where I am today, would I be who I am today? Was I being groomed, formed, strengthened?

Some events that merited great celebration in my younger years can seem different upon reflection. Did I really spend that much time to accomplish that? Was it really a blessing that I got that job I wanted so badly? Was it what God wanted for me – or was it what I wanted for me?

I’m not talking about regret – I’m talking about perspective. We have so little of it. I imagine when I am safely dead, and I can look back on this test of mortality, I will be able to more clearly see which events truly were “good” or “bad” for me, and how they impacted my lives.

Until then, I need rely on the Holy Ghost for discernment, and try to refrain from getting too worked up over things that happen to me – good or bad – because I can’t always tell which are which.

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  1. I think that even for the absolute best among us our experience here in mortality will remain in large part a puzzle to us until the promise made in Rev 7:17 and repeated in 21:4 are fulfilled. I suspect that the fulfillment of that promise related to “tears” will have some sort of cause/effect relation with the promises made in D&C 76:55, 59, 94, 95. To me “all things” and to “see as (we) are seen and know as (we) are known” is a promise that with the knowledge and understanding we will gain (in hindsight) of our experience here in mortality, we will comprehend the Love, Justice, and Mercy if Him who “knoweth all things from the beginning” and has planned accordingly for our benefit. That comprehension will convert grief to gratitude. Wait (Isaiah 40:31) on Him, and (you will) see.

  2. Elder Foster offered this story in a priesthood leadership training meeting that I attended several years ago. I generally liked the story, but I also felt uneasy about it. Elder Foster intended to convey the kinds of mature insights you have written about here. But I can see how the story could be taken to imply that there is no good or bad — everything just is — or even that life has no meaning.

    Stories can be extremely powerful tools for conveying messages, culture, and values. But despite our intentions when relating a story, we do not get to pick the lessons that consumers of the story derive from it. Thus, I still feel less than completely comfortable with this particular story.

    1. Scott: I completely agree that this story could be used to justify an apathetic approach to life, which is why I added my comments. Most stories can be used to further the agenda of the teller – even Christ’s Parable of the Laborers could be used effectively to justify unfair wage practices – but it is a still a good story when applied correctly.

  3. Thanks for posting on this with a summary of Elder Foster’s story. While our ward was watching, just as he was getting to that, our internet connection to the broadcast died, and we didn’t get to hear that story. It came back just as he was listing the 4th item of his list.

  4. Some messages are just so timely! Thank you for taking the time to share this message today.

  5. Joel has this saying. “Is that so?” When I get all worked up about something that has happened- he just says “Is that so” or “wait and see” it sounds condescending when I am upset. So now he says it with a smile. (he knows better) But he is really good and just waiting until things play out. I am glad I have someone to balance me out.
    Speaking of Mark Twain: here what happened when he met Brigham Young: while visiting Brigham Young in 1861 with his brother Orion, Mark Twain wrote: “He [Brigham Young] was very simply dressed and was just taking off a straw hat as we entered. He talked about Utah, and the Indians, and Nevada, and general American matters and questions, with our secretary and certain government officials who came with us. But he never paid any attention to me, notwithstanding I made several attempts to ‘draw him out’ on federal politics and his high handed attitude toward Congress. . . . But he merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, something as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail. By and by I subsided into an indignant silence, and so sat until the end, hot and flushed, and execrating him in my heart for an ignorant savage. But he was calm. . . . When the audience was ended and we were retiring from the presence, he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother: ‘Ah—your child, I presume? Boy, or girl?'” (Roughing It [1872], 112–113).

  6. I completely agree and understand what you are saying about age, understanding and perspective. If one is lucky age does give one some wisdom and a greater understanding. I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years looking back and looking forward. My understanding is greater about the past and also greater in regards to the future, my eternal persecutive has become so much broader. I think graduation from this earth life is going to be absolutely mind blowing as we look back and forward.

  7. This post reminds me of a cute children’s book, “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” It’s a similar concept. Thanks for the reminder that we need to keep everything–even our struggles and challenges–in perspective.

  8. Thus the importance of truly meaning “thy will be done”. Good stuff to think on some more. I’ve never heard this story before, but maybe I’ve heard something similar because it seems familiar.

  9. We need to put on our “perspectacles” to see things as the Lord sees them.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts. On Sunday morning before I arose, I waslying in bed thinking. It ocurred to me that my life has been very enjoyable even though I did not enjoy many of the things that have happened to me.

  11. This is such awesome material for my RS lesson! That I taught yesterday. 🙁 But yes, perspective is an amazing thing. Exciting (and painful) to watch my adult kids try to figure it all out. What they see as urgent and critical, I wish I could help them see is going to be nothing more than a blip on the radar of their lives. *sigh* Thanks for the great read.

  12. I don’t live in AZ,but am here for a few weeks visiting my daughters..so luckily was able to go to the stake center and watch.
    It was great to be able to hear some inspired speakers,that normally if I was at home,I would have missed out on.
    Good timing!

    I particularly enjoyed Elder Foster’s remarks too.It was something I really needed to be reminded of.
    It is so important to understand that we need to have an eternal perspective on things.

    I liked him quoting Mark Twain also… it’s something like “There are two important days in your life..the day you were born,and the day you find out the reason why.”

    I was able to take the Phoenix Temple tour yesterday too..so it has been a very uplifting vacation.

    I appreciate how you chose to share insights for those who are outside of AZ and could not listen themselves.Thanks!

  13. Love this. My house is trashed (IlovemychildrenIlovemychildrenIlovemychildren) and the only way I can endure the drudgery of housework is to carry around my iPhone while I stream netflix and listen to shows that I have seen a million times over or to have something significant to ponder. Thank for providing something significant to mull over while I spend some time restoring order to our home.

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