Recently sitting by my pool, I noticed a woman attempting to move a bee that was about to drown to a safer place. Upon achieving that end, she gleefully exclaimed, “I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” delighted that she had saved the bee’s life.
Hearing her reminded me of my own experience on an internship in a federal prison in Oklahoma. It was also reminiscent of two poems, one Persian and the other Daoist, each of which implies that no matter how difficult our life experience may be, these events may be in the service of a beneficial outcome that in the moment we may be oblivious to and ignorant of.
On a day when I broke my collarbone playing sports I could not appear at the prison to perform my duties. Ironically, on that very day, the prisoners rioted and took the administration hostage.
Being unaware that this had taken place I continued to obsess that I was unable to show up for my work, activities that I so thoroughly enjoyed. So while my injury prevented me from being held captive that day, it came at a price, pain that I had to endure and my anguishing about not being able to do my job.
Rumi, the Persian poet, takes a contrarian view of events that imply loss to the recipient of the unpleasantry. He makes his point in a poem, “In Difficulties There is Provided a Way of Salvation,” where he describes the experience of a wealthy king who upon retiring for the night places his gold lamé shoes under his bed. While he sleeps, a poisonous snake lodges in one of his shoes unbeknownst. Moments later, an eagle descends through the turret’s window, takes his abode in one of the shoes, and makes off with the snake. Rumi takes the view that one’s apparent loss and the hardship associated with it may ultimately lead to a greater good.
Here, he contrasts momentary loss with ultimate gain when he advises us … to find joy in the heart,
Whensoever distress and care assail it.
Know troubles to be that eagle of the Prophet’s
Which carried off the sandal of that holy one,
In order to save his foot from the bite of the viper —
O excellent device! — to preserve him from harm.
Each of the participants in the poem were in fact, in the right place at the right time. The king asleep, unaware that a poisonous snake had taken lodging in his shoe. The snake, at least for the moment, at rest, and incapable of doing harm, and the hungry eagle’s arrival with its voracious appetite, stealthily preventing a more grievous outcome.
Rumi intimates that this apparent loss viewed myopically as the king’s misfortune was in fact a small price to pay for the preservation for his life.
While at times our difficulties present themselves as obstacles to our attaining our aims, our decision to pass through these events courageously may in fact predict a more fortuitous outcome.
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My daughter, Hannah, a high school student, studiously make this point in her review of the book “Unbroken,” where a talented young man is held in a prisoner of war camp continuously experiencing physical and emotional abuse, yet, keeping his morale and life-sustaining optimism. Hannah observes that the protagonist “persisted to fight through every obstacle thrown at him. Through every hardship, he never gave up once. When there were times he could surrender himself, he chose not to. Whenever he was going through a tough time, he still managed to persevere, and bring himself back to his true self. As cliché as the message comes across, rather it be school, family, or just life in general, the meaning ‘Unbroken’ really sends across to anyone watching or reading, is to never give up when conquering a challenge, no matter what.”
An identical message is conveyed in the Daoist tale of a farmer whose stallion abandoned him.
Fretful townspeople approached the farmer conveying their trepidation that the farmer’s livelihood would now be in peril. They anxiously opined, “What a tragedy has befallen you, as you are now deprived of your able-bodied horse to tend your field. ” The farmer with a subtle glint in his eye, and almost imperceptible smile, replied, “Maybe so, maybe not,” a Daoist point of view that equates crisis with opportunity.
A month later, the stallion prancing proudly returned along with three mares. So, what originally appeared as misfortune conveyed in a tale of woe by the townspeople morphed into a beneficial outcome for the farmer, forever at peace and tranquil, in the midst of his apparent travail. Days later, the farmer’s son attempting to tame one of the wild horses was thrown, broke his leg, and could no longer work the fields. As before, the troubled townspeople unable to moderate their predilection to imply tragic outcomes to the events of life, proclaimed, “What a tragedy has befallen you! Your most able helper, your beloved son, has broken his leg in three places, and now bereft, you are without a helper!”
Of course, the farmer who meditated daily was not at all bereft, as his meditation enabled him to self-soothe in the face of whatever hardship might befall him. The farmer once again confidently, with a coy glint in his eye and almost imperceptible smile, replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
Only a few days later, bandits entered the village and kidnapped all the able-bodied men, except for his injured son.
Rumi’s poem cautions us to deemphasize our victimization in the face of apparent hardship.
Tis said, ‘Mourn not for your slaughtered cattle
If a wolf has harried your flocks;’
For that calamity may avert a greater calamity,
And that loss may ward off a more grievous loss.
Similarly, the I Ching, having its origins in Daoist philosophy, advises “Use the obstacles that you face in the outside world as the occasion for your introspection. So much of this world is out of your hands, and there is little that you can do about it. But how you deal with life’s changes and challenges is very much within your control. Obstacles and hindrances throw you back on your own devices. They are the true test of your character. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, make the most of this opportunity for self-development.”
Richard Vogel, Ph.D., has a therapy practice in Marin County and Calistoga. He specializes in couples therapy and the treatment of anxiety and depression. Contact Vogel at email@example.com