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THE FALLEN DANCER, PART II

January 11th, 2023

 

The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.

 

Click here to read Part I

 

Part II: We’ll see

 

 

One of the most famous parables comes from the Huainanzi, and ancient Chinese text that records a series of scholarly debates at the court of Liu An, Prince of Hainan sometimes in the second century BC. In Western society, this parable is often referred to as “The old man lost his horse“, “Maybe so, maybe not”, or simply: We’ll see.

 

Here is a translation from Les grand crates du Hainan zi, Clare Larre et al.

 

Good luck and bad luck create each other

and it is difficult to foresee their change.

 

A righteous man lived near the border.

For no reason, his horse ran off into barbarian territory.

 

Everyone felt sorry for him.

But his farther spoke to him:

 

“Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”

 

Several months later

his horse came back with a group of good, noble barbarian horses.

 

Everyone congratulated him.

But his father spoke to him:

 

“Who knows if that won’t bring you bad luck?”

 

A rich house has good horses 

And the son mounted with joy to ride.

 

He fell and broke his leg.

Everyone felt sorry for him.

 

But his father spoke to him:

 

“Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”

 

One year later

the barbarians invaded across the border.

 

Adult men strung up their vows and went into battle.

Nine out of ten border residents were killed,

 

Except for the son because of his broken leg.

Father and son were protected.

 

Hence: Bad luck brings good luck

And good luck brings bad luck.

 

This happens without end

and nobody can estimate it.

 

 

 

In the common western version the volley between observers and the father is “You’re so lucky!” or “Oh how unlucky!” And to each, the father simply says: we’ll see.

 

What is the highest utility that we can glean from this parable? While parables generally have a fairly obvious lesson that’s intended to be laid bare for any reader to notice and understand, the lesson offered by this parable is more subtle than what at first seems obvious.

 

It seems that the lesson of the parable is summarized in the end. That good and bad luck are linked, and one brings the other. And it seems like life is a never ending series of one step forward followed by one step backwards - and that in the grand scheme of things luck levels out to a neutral futility. But notice again those first two lines, specifically the second: it is difficult to foresee their change. That’s the whole point of this parable, and it’s chief value.

 

But, while this is a cute story about unintended consequences and second and third order effects, does it really unearth the nature of good and bad luck in a way that we can understand?

 

What’s strange to realize about this story is that it doesn’t actually contain any bad luck. All of the bad luck turns out to be advantageous in some way, and all the good luck is… well, lucky. 

 

So again where is the bad luck?


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