I have been trying to remember where I read or heard this story, perhaps Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. After a big of Googling (key words like “farmer”, “horse”, “neighbour”, “son”), I discovered this story is claimed by various sources as Zen Buddhist, Chinese Proverb, Taoist and Sufi.

The story goes something like this:

There once lived a farmer and his son. One day their horse ran away. Their neighbours came by and said “Oh, that’s terrible news.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

A few weeks later the horse returned with seven wild horses. And the neighbours came by and said “Wow, you must be thrilled.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

The next day the son was riding one of the wild horses and was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbours came by and said, “Oh, what bad luck.” The farmer said, “maybe”.

The next day a conscription was announced and the military officers through the village. Due to his broken leg the farmer’s son did not have to go to war. The neighbours came by and said, “Oh what good fortune.” The farmer said, “maybe.”

We cannot know what good fortunes may come out of misfortunes. 

After a bit more research I discovered this story has been re-told by Tolle, Chopra, Paulo Coelho and, of course, Alan Watts! I often think of this story, and I’m happy to now see there is a reason it has stuck with me and many others as well.

Paulo Coelho also has a longer telling of the story on his blog:

A traditional Sufi story