Good News, Bad News, Who Knows?

My friend and colleague, John Scherer, once told a story to my team that has remained in our operative minds over the years. The story has its origins in China, and given the tendency to blame our current situation on it, I thought I would give it some good credit.

It seems there was a family in a village who had a horse, which in this agrarian culture was a pretty important asset to have. One day, the son left the gate ajar, allowing the horse to escape the confines of the corral. Neighbors gathered around, shook their heads, and said, “Too bad, your horse has escaped and is now gone. You are most unfortunate.” The old grandmother heard their comment and said quietly, “Could be good, could be bad. Who knows.”

A few days later, the horse returned, but brought with him two mares. The boy quickly put them in the corral. Now, this family, with three horses, were considered rich in the village. Again, the neighbors congregated, as neighbors do, and remarked at the good fortune. And again, the grandmother said quietly, “Could be good, could be bad. Who knows?”

With three horses, the young boy was charged with training them to do the work on the farm. One day, while he was breaking on of he new mares, he was thrown from the horse, breaking his leg, leaving him with a limp. The neighbors gathered, commenting on the misfortune that had befallen this young man, forever to live with a disability. And again, the grandmother, standing on the edge of the crowd said quietly, “Could be good, could be bad. Who knows?”

A few months later, a war lord came through on his way to a war. He conscripted all the young men in the community to go with him to fight. But the young man with the limp was excluded because of his limp. He had to remain in his village while his friends went off to war. And as you now have guessed, the neighbors gathered, and all said how fortunate it was for this young man to remain, while their sons had been taken away. And the wise grandmother who had made a few trips around the Sun, said quietly, “Could be good, could be bad. Who knows?”

And of course, the story goes on, a never-ending story of assessment, is this going to be a good thing, or a bad thing. Good things often emerge out of things we initially saw as negative. And, sometimes when we think we have just hit the jackpot of fortune, it turns out to have some unforeseen downsides. Surprise seems to be at the heart of living as a person in this territory of human existence. We don’t like it because we can’t control it, but it is reality, nonetheless. How many times have you experienced the Truth held within the above story? Could be good, could be bad. Who knows?

My friend, John, that I mentioned earlier, gathered together a group of people this week via Zoom, an internet platform that allowed us to see and talk with other people who are across the world, literally in the global city which has no bounds. From India, Scotland, Holland, Germany, South Africa, Canada, we were linked to talk about the effects of this coronavirus on us and our organizations. John convened us from Warsaw, Poland and he connected me, in Atlanta, Georgia, along with my friend, Mike Murray, a little ol’ consultant in Austin, Texas.

So all these folks were joined together because of this threatening virus. What in the world is going to happen? And you guessed it by now: good news, bad news. Who knows?

John posed some questions to the group to get some dialogue going around this current crisis: How might this crisis wind up serving us in unexpected ways? What fears does this crisis trigger in you? How might this crisis stretch you as a person and your way of seeing the world?

Now, these are tough questions that go to the marrow of the bone, or the heart of the matter. No mere rhetorical questions aimed into the ether of space or an inane question barked at celebrities that are walking the red carpet. These are existential and real which require some rare honesty with oneself and some energy that you may be slap out of, given our new reality. But they are worthy questions, worth a moment of consideration, of pondering, if you will allow me, a pause.

The first move was predictable for our group, even though we were over-educated, accomplished, sophisticated, and some might say, enlightened. We went straight to the uncertainty. What the hell is happening, what the hell is going to be the outcome? The initial question hooked our fear, our discomfort at uncertainty.

But then we moved more deeply in our embrace of John’s query. What might we learn from this time? Some folks, like me are hopeful that this human experience of threat might work to bring us more together than before. Perhaps a good can be harvested as we recognize our common being that underlies our real differences. There was a hope that the spirit of unity might bind us together across national identities, our native competitive side of only caring about “us”. And perhaps, even in this country, the lines of alienation along party lines, ethnic borders, and economic concerns could loosen and bring us together in some ontological unity.

A realist among us, after allowing us to play in the waters of optimism, threw some cold water on the party. Perhaps this pandemic will exacerbate the separation and only draw the lines more boldly. Adversarial stances between points of view have been stressed in our social media culture, fueled by blatant and hidden forces meant to divide us. Monitoring the current chatter on social media would certainly confirm that fear. This is only going to make us worse, and with an election in the offing, this crisis may just take us down for the count.

Back to the Chinese, the symbol for crisis contains both the figure for “danger” and “opportunity”. The wisdom of that ancient culture reaches into our arrogant “greatness” to remind us that BOTH are simultaneously present to us in this critical moment. The danger of splitting apart with deeper alienation or the opportunity to use this crisis as leverage, motivation, to do this thing called life on the planet better. Good news, bad news. Who knows?

We concluded out meeting with a solid sense that we don’t know the outcome, but we also came away with the renewed hope that the possibility for good news is clearly in play. One of our number took John’s question to heart overnight and imagined a letter that was written to us by the coronavirus itself. It was crazy creative, the kind of thing I wish I had written and turned into a song. But for her, it was a simple concept, a profound notion, that the virus was actually here as part of Creation, to help us. To assist us by stopping us in our crazy hurry and busyness. To interrupt our incessant noise between one another. To tend to this earthly envelope we call our environment before it’s too late. To remind us of the reality of threat around us that can ruin life in this Garden. To call us to loosen our arrogant pretensions of superiority. To slow us down to look at our skies, our rivers, our lakes, our oceans, our farm lands and see how they are doing. To shock us into a realization of our common bonds.

What a moment for me, to allow myself to think outside of my normal, routine mind and to see afresh. To see the world differently. In the ancient world, it was called metanoia, a conversion, a new birth. Could that be what is going to come out of all this? Good news, bad news. Who knows?

When I was growing up, I would go with my friends to the East Point Theater to see a bunch of pretty bad movies. Once a summer, the feature would be of some Martian spacecraft that would land and threaten the human race. Could it be that this time, it’s no Martian spaceship, or Godzilla coming up dripping out of the sea. This time it’s a virus, making it’s silent way across our species. Good news, bad news. Who knows/

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