Good and bad, it's all the same: a Taoist parable to live by

Story highlights

  • The good-or-bad dichotomy is false, according to the Taoist tradition
  • "Who knows what's good or bad?" is useful to frame big and small events in our lives

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)Of all the philosophies, axioms and pearls of wisdom I've amassed over the years, one comes up more than any other. It's the Taoist lesson of the relative nature of good and bad. It's efficiently illustrated by the 2,000-year-old story of the good (and bad) fortune that follows a farmer's loss of his horse.

We use the good-or-bad dichotomy to categorize nearly everything in our lives -- events, people, food, decisions, even world history. But the lesson of the story is that there is actually no such thing as good or bad. It's a false distinction and a trap that only causes psychic pain. Good things are constantly being born out of the seemingly bad, and vice versa. Often, it seems, it's just a matter of time until an event or decision from one category leads directly to one in the other.
In the case of the farmer and his horse: first he loses his most valuable possession, then it returns bringing a dozen new horses with it, then his son breaks his leg while taming one of the new horses, and then the son is spared from being conscripted into the army because of the broken leg. And it could keep going like that.
    What is bad leads to good leads to bad leads to good, ad infinitum. The farmer, who neither celebrates nor decries these events, is wise enough to know it all comes out in the wash. As he repeats in the story, "Who knows what's good or bad?"
    This lesson of "Who Knows What's Good or Bad" and how to incorporate it as a personal philosophy, was the subject of a TEDx Talk I gave last year. But I cowardly avoided any attempt to extend it to the "really bad things." One slide of my talk listed all the things I wasn't going to apply "Who Knows What's Good or Bad" to, including Hitler, 9/11, school shootings and Hurricane Katrina.
    And yet.
    Last week, as I watched and read about New Orleans 10 years after Katrina, it was impossible to miss a narrative that marked speeches and news coverage about this anniversary: This is a city building toward a future that is an improvement over its past.
    "We have data that shows before the storm, the high school graduation rate was 54%. Today, it's up to 73%. Before the storm, college enrollment was 37%. Today, it's almost 60%," President Barack Obama said. "We still have a long way to go, but that is real progress. New Orleans is coming back better and stronger."