There’s an ancient parable about a farmer who lost his horse. That night, the neighbors gathered around to mourn his loss. “We cannot believe this. What a terrible thing to have happened to you,” they said. The farmer responded, “maybe.”
Days later, the farmer’s horse returned with seven wild horses in tow. Right away, the neighbors exclaimed, “what an unexpected good fortune!” The farmer shrugged, “maybe.”
The next day, the farmer’s son rode one of the wild horses, fell off and broke his legs. The neighbors cried, “what terrible fortune to land on your son!” The farmer replied, “maybe.”
Weeks later, the army came knocking on doors drafting men for the looming war. When they saw the farmer’s son and his broken legs, they passed him by. The neighbors rejoiced, “what great luck for you and your son!” The farmer simply said, “maybe.”
This story has rung true for me ever since I first heard it several years back. It literally applies to everything in life:
- Didn’t get the job I wanted: Good? Bad? Maybe.
- Got the job I wanted: Good? Bad? Maybe.
- Hopelessly single: Good? Bad? Maybe.
- Engaged and getting married: Good? Bad? Maybe.
- Trump is President of The United States: Good? Bad? Maybe.
Our desire to label events in absolutes — good, bad, awesome, terrible — prevents us from seeing those events for what they truly are: unfinished stories. Our careers, our friendships, our love life, our health, our dreams, our world, our very lives are unfolding narratives that never cease to surprise us.
Being aware of that fact is freeing in a way, because unfolding stories are not done stories yet; They’re yet to reach a final conclusion. This lack of finality gives us hope that things could change; That they could get better.
Over a year ago, I had perfect hearing. I could hear the faintest of footsteps and bird chirps outside my house. I could easily tell the difference in the quality of headphones, no matter how subtle. I was always the one person in a room that whispered, “did you hear that?” when no one else did.
One morning, I woke up completely deaf in my right ear. Just like that. It happened in my sleep and without warning. After an array of tests and MRIs, I was told by the best otologists in the world that I’d suffered from an idiopathic, profound Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, or SSHL, and that it was permanent.
For starters, I did not have the equanimity of the farmer. I was devastated. As an audiophile, this felt like an ending of a life I had just started. I lived in utter despair for days, mourning the footsteps, the chirps, and the music I would no longer experience on the right side of my body. Even as I regained some of my hearing in the weeks that followed, I was so focused on what I lost versus what I started to regain.
Then one day, I was reminded of the farmer’s story, and my perspective started to change. Instead of looking at my loss as bad, I started to look at it as an unfinished chapter of my life — still unfolding with a conclusion that hasn’t yet been determined.
That helped reduce my anxiety quite a bit, which helped me open up to talk about my issue with others. I joined a support group to find people that knew what I was going through and could help me cope. I talked to my friends, and in the process I discovered that some of them have been living with SSHL for years but the loss was so shocking and overwhelming they couldn’t bear sharing it with anyone else. That must have felt so lonely, I thought to myself.
The Japanese have a philosophy called Wabi-sabi — believing that beauty can only emanate from things that are imperfect, impermanent, and transient, for that is the nature of life. To be perfect is to be unnatural. To be permanent is to be unseen.
There’s something very comforting in this world view. Seneca, the Roman stoic philosopher, said, “All things human are short-lived and perishable.” Imperfection is the essence of beauty. In my case, the trauma of hearing loss underscores its impermanence as well as my resilience to cope with it. There’s beauty in resilience; In being anti-fragile. There’s also beauty in our capacity for empathy, which can only be forged in the crucible of our own suffering. Empathy comes from pain, and that is beautiful.
When we look at life and everything it encompasses as an unfinished story, flawed and impermanent, we begin to truly enjoy its moments in the here and now. What’s bad today could turn into good tomorrow and what’s good today could become something worse tomorrow. Change is a stranger that never ceases to show, and sooner or later, we all get to know.
My hearing loss is at an inflection point. There’s a regenerative therapy for SSHL in late trials right now. It may become available to me as soon as 2021. Could my proverbial lost horse come back? Would that be good? Would that be bad?
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