The Seemingly Bad

Years ago I had a friend I sometimes looked to for counsel.  He was a few years older than me and had already blazed the trail from hippie to the not-really-expected condition of being a family man with a mortgage and responsibilities.  Holding to his ideals even as he cut his hair and put on a suit, he got a masters in psychology and became director of a drug and alcohol treatment center in northern California.

From the many discussions we had, I remember most clearly his phrase, “the seemingly bad.”  He meant that we cannot really evaluate events as they unfold, and we waste a lot of energy trying.

Years later I came upon a Chinese folktale that serves as a parable of the point.  It goes by various names, such as “An Old Man Finds a Horse.”  An illustrated children’s version of the tale was published by Ed Young and Tracey Adams in 1998 as, The Lost Horse.

Here is the gist of the story.

Once a wise old man lived on the steppes.  One day his prize mare ran away.  The neighbors said, “How terrible.  What a loss!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

A few weeks later, the mare returned, along with a fine stallion.  The neighbors said, “What great good fortune for you!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

When the man’s son tried to ride the stallion, the horse threw him and he suffered a badly broken leg.  The neighbors said, “You’re only son is crippled.  What a terrible blow!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

A short time later a regiment marched through the valley, pressing all the young men into military service – except the old man’s son, who was unable to serve in the infantry because of his leg.  The other young men who marched to war never came home.

I had my own experience of “the seemingly bad” in the early ’80’s.  I worked as a part-time community college art instructor and wanted  a full time position.  Shasta College, in Weed, CA, right at the foot of Mt. Shasta, had an opening, and based on an application and phone interview, I was invited to visit the school as one of five candidates for a second interview.

Everything looked good.  My portfolio was strong, and I got a glowing recommendation from the chairman of the art department where I had studied, who had also taught the hiring professor at Shasta.  Mary and I drove up on the kind of fall weekend that makes you glad to be alive.  The interview went well, and that night we celebrated with dinner at a restaurant that featured a balcony overlooking a creek.  While watching a golden sunset, we talked about where to live and what to do in our new home.

Guess what?

They promoted one of their own part-timers.  I’m sure they intended this all along, and the interviews were just a formality to satisfy labor regulations.  I was crushed.  I forgot my old friend’s lesson, that this might just be seemingly bad.

A year later, in the face of recession and severe budget cuts, the position I had applied for was cut, along with a number of other teaching jobs.  If I had been hired, we would have been stuck in a small town with severe unemployment.

This story and the concept of “seemingly bad” came to mind recently when I thought of people I’ve met who are desperate to get published – not just working hard to achieve the goal, but desperate, piling all their hopes and sense of worth on that increasingly shaky endeavor.  What happens to the many who will never achieve that goal?

Hopefully, something along the lines of what happened after Shasta College turned me down.  Feeling at first like a sell-out, I went to work in computer graphics.  In retrospect, it was a great move.  What seemed bad turned me down a different road that allowed me to make a good living while exploring a different kind of creativity.

I’m not suggesting that bad things don’t happen, or every cloud has a silver lining.  The seemingly bad can be awfully hard to weather.  I am suggesting that it’s hard to anticipate outcomes from the middle of the trenches.  The more I thought about it, the better it seemed to pass on my old friend’s advice.  The seemingly good and seemingly bad are often not what they seem.