By Father Casey
Years ago, I came across an old story in the Caldecott-winning picture book Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. It’s what is known as a koan, which are like the Zen Buddhist versions of the parables of Jesus: they take an ordinary situation and play with it in surprising ways to stretch your mind and heart. The story goes like this:
There once was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away.
Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.
The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
I hesitate to reflect too much on the story, for you don’t need me to explain it to you. I trust that it will keep gnawing at you long after you close your email, the same way it’s stuck with me years after I first came across it in Zen Shorts.
What I know is that it is a parable for this moment. When I look around at the world, everyone is ricocheting from the good to the bad to the even worse and then back to the good.
Omicron is horrible and spreading everywhere! The pandemic will never end!
Omicron is mild. It must mean the pandemic is ending!
Vaccinated people can still get sick, and the hospitals are filling up!
The spike is peaking sooner than we thought. It’s all going to be okay!
Do you ever feel like you’re in a bumper car with no steering wheel? Slamming into events and people all day until you collapse into bed an exhausted mess?
This is why I hope you will consider this koan in your prayers. We would all do well to give less of our spirit away to events that we cannot control, whether good or ill. The world shouts at us all day long, demanding that we see in every event a portent of either doom or salvation. We are invited into the emotional bumper car the moment we wake up and read the news or social media feeds, and far too often we willingly climb inside.
We don’t have to.
We can pause before reacting, and take a breath before lighting our hair on fire. We do not know how the events of our lives and of the world are being fitted together into something bigger. Nor can we see how our current experiences – suffering or success – may change in moment’s notice. This isn’t about becoming fatalistic, but rather an invitation to see the world through the eyes of faith.
For our faith is in God, who holds all things together and who can be trusted whether the horse runs away, or shows back up with three other horses. Bad luck? Good luck? Who can say? And besides, we know what is ours to do either way: keep following the way of Jesus, and keep trying to love everyone around us like he does.