Monday, February 2, 2009

Who knows what's bad or what's good?

I'm shoveling a little more than last year. Shoveling the driveway, like mowing the lawn is quiet time for me. Many a blog post has been conceived while shoveling, which combined with my Michigan roots, is probably why we still don't own a snowblower. I'm mindful of the fact that only so many winters remain where I'll physically be able to shovel the driveway, but until then I'll continue to reap the benefits of this time for reflection. A recent storm came with some heavy snow (wetter than usual), that appeared to get heavier with every pass. It didn’t help, seeing various trucks plowing neighborhood driveways and, then, waving to the neighbors as they exited a spotlessly clean driveway, motoring merrily down the street, seemingly without a care in the world. My motivation waned and, just as I was feeling that this shoveling thing was more than I really needed, another neighbor sporting a plow on the front of his pickup slowed, asked, “need a little help?” He and his truck made a few magical sweeps, and the snow disappeared from the driveway. A few days later, another neighbor stopped by with a snowblower to take care of the thicker snow piles at the end of the driveway, saying that he'd be glad to help “any time.”

The generosity of these neighbors reminded me of a book given to me by a kind soul last fall - The Geography of Thought - how Asians and Westerners think differently...and why. The book contrasts Western philosophy (rooted in the work of ancient Greeks) with Eastern philosophy (rooted in Confucianism and the ancient Chinese culture). A passage from the book connected with my shoveling experiences of late.

"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 what's 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 by 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 full of contradictions" (pp 12-13).

Who knows what's bad or what's good? At the same time I was lamenting my curse of shoveling a seemingly endless amount of snow, my spirit was renewed through the friendly actions of some very kind neighbors - leaving me in a wonderful mood, buoyed by affirmation of the generosity found in this community. The notion of who knows "what's bad or what's good?" will likely apply to the state's fiscal crisis as well - we know it's bad in Albany, but hopefully some good will come from our economic tribulations as well. You can share your thoughts with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.