Good vs Bad – Our Western Tendency

There is an ancient Chinese story, still known to most East Asians today, about an old farmer whose only horse ran away.  Knowing that the horse was the mainstay of his livelihood, his neighbors came to commiserate with him.  ‘Who knows what’s bad or good?’ said the old man, refusing their sympathy.   And indeed, a few days later his horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse.  The old man’s friends came to congratulate him.  Rejecting their congratulations, the old man said, ‘Who knows what’s bad or good?’  And, as it happened, a few days later when the old man’s son was attempting to ride the wild horse, he was thrown from it and his leg was broken.  The friends came to express their sadness about the son’s misfortune.  ‘Who knows what’s bad or good?’ said the old man.  A few weeks passed, and the army came to the village to conscript all the able-bodied men to fight a war against the neighboring province, but the old man’s son was not fit to serve and was spared.

The story, which goes on as long as the patience of the audience permits, expresses a fundamental of the Eastern stance toward life.  The world is constantly changing and is full of contradictions.  To understand and appreciate one state of affairs requires the existence of its opposite; what seems to be true now may be the opposite of what it seems to be.

– Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought.

The Western mind is very good at logic.  We’re good at examining things and making rules about how they work.  We then make quick judgments based off these rules.  We’re also really good at arguing, trying to prove why something is one way, and not the other.  We value consistency.  We love stability.  We strive for predictability.  We go to great lengths to prove to others we know the answer.

These tendencies have benefits, but they also bring us a lot of pain.  We tend not to be as flexible from situation to situation, relative to the East.  Once we think we have the answer, we grab on tight, applying the logic to all situations, and argue loudly with those who challenge it.  This goal for having solid answers, in a very complex and ever changing world, sets us up for a lot of frustration.  And sometimes the frustration sends us further down the rabbit hole of crunching numbers, trying to find THE answer.  We get stuck in a vicious circle.

If we know when to let go of our tendencies to categorize, separating the “good” from the “bad,” we become more open to what life has to offer.  We see things that aren’t possible to see when stuck in a “knowing” mindset.  Though it’s scary to step into a unknowing mindset, what’s even more scary, is to live a life forever confined in the security of your own logic.

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