I love this Chinese Taoist proverb. Maybe you’ve heard it before. It’s the one where a wise old man suddenly acquires a herd of wild horses. His neighbour congratulates him but the old man simply replies ‘who knows what is good and what is bad?’ The next day his son badly injures his leg breaking one of the horses in. The neighbour commiserates – what bad luck he says. The old man again says ‘who knows what is good and what is bad?’ The following day soldiers pass through the village recruiting for the army – as the son has a broken leg he can’t be taken. Again the old man sagely notes ‘who knows what is good and what is bad?’
In our changemaking we stand for change. For justice. For the earth. For the knowing in our hearts that things can be better than this. We take a stand for what we believe in. And at the same time I believe we need to embrace what we see unfolding in the world around us – and even things in our own lives - from the framework of ‘who knows what is good and what is bad?’ This is about holding a wider longer-term perspective alongside our initial response.
For example many despaired at the election of Donald Trump but his presidency and style is also serving to empower many who otherwise wouldn’t be engaged in politics. His bigotry seems in fact to be serving to strengthen women and others to raises their voices and actions to a level never seen before. And closer to home although the Brexit debacle is not something I voted for it may yet serve as a vehicle for the UK to process its colonial past more humbly and sincerely than has been done before. It may be painful but the potential for good to come from seemingly 'bad' is there.
So there’s a paradox here in our changemaking that I offer to you.
We stand for change and act on this in the ways we each feel called to. And we have views on how we'd like these changes to happen.
But sometimes seemingly terrible things can also serve to bend the arc of history towards social justice as Martin Luther King so brilliantly articulated.
So I encourage you to hold this paradox. Acting for change while holding 'not knowing' around outcomes. Short term outcomes may look one way while longer term ones could be entirely different.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have a perspective or an opinion. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel some despair at the twists and turns of our lives, politics and shifting global dynamics. But it also means we don’t collapse in that despair. We can hold a preference – and our stand for change – while also embracing mystery and not knowing. While holding the possibility that over the longer term this ‘disaster’ may turn out for the best. And we can act for change – regardless of the impact and outcome over the short term.
Life is a mystery we pretend to understand. We’re all dancing with it. Many like you are following the call to act for love, connection, compassion, humanity, justice and peace. This is beautiful and important work.
So I offer you a tool for your toolbox. A resource for resilience as you go about this work.
Ultimately and really. As things unfold.
Who knows what is good and what is bad?