There once was a village that had among its people a very wise old man. The villagers trusted this man to provide them with answers to their questions and concerns.
One day, a farmer from the village rushed to the wise man and said frantically, “Wise man, please help me. A horrible thing has happened. My ox has died and now I have no animal to help me plow my field! Isn’t this the worst thing that could possibly happen to me?” The wise old man quietly replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The farmer could hardly believe his ears, and exclaimed, “What? Surely you are not disagreeing that this is a horrible thing that has happened to me!” Again, the wise man kindly looked him in the eye and calmly repeated, “Maybe so, maybe not.” Disgusted, the farmer hurried back to the village and reported to his neighbors that the wise man had either gone mad or grown callous and incoherent. Surely this was the worst thing that could have happened to him; why couldn’t the wise man see this?
The very next day, still despondent and uncertain of how he could manage his farm without an ox, the farmer took a long walk over his land, and spotted a strong, young horse grazing in one of his distant fields. Because the farmer had no ox to rely upon, he immediately had the idea to catch the horse to replace the ox – and he did. How joyful the farmer was . . . plowing the field had never been easier, and now, he no longer had to walk everyplace he went; he had a horse to ride! The wise man’s words came back to mind, and thinking now that maybe the wise man was actually still very wise after all, he went back to see the old sage and to apologize. “You were right, wise man. Losing my ox wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. It was a blessing in disguise! I never would have taken my long walk and captured my new horse had that not happened, and you have to agree that getting this new horse is certainly the best thing that could happen to me.” The wise man replied once again, “Maybe so, maybe not.” Not again, thought the farmer; this time, the wise man’s answer could not possibly be right. Thinking that the old sage had become unreliable, the farmer vowed to never seek his advice again.
A few days later, the farmer’s son was riding the horse and was thrown off. He broke his leg, and it was apparent that he would not be able to help with the crops when harvest time arrived. “Oh no,” thought the farmer; “now we will lose a great deal of money and maybe even starve to death!” Once again, the farmer remembered the wise man’s reply and realized it had proved correct, so he went again to see the wise man. The farmer exclaimed: “How did you know that capturing my horse was not a good thing? You were right! My son was injured by the horse and won’t be able to help with the crop. This time, I’m sure that this is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me.” But, just as he had done before, the wise man calmly looked at the farmer and in a compassionate tone replied once again, “Maybe so, maybe not.” Enraged that the wise man could be so ignorant and insensitive, the farmer stormed away.
The next day, troops arrived to take every able-bodied young man to a war that had just erupted. Facing a considerably larger army under unprepared conditions, the odds of surviving the war were projected to be very small. With his broken leg, the farmer’s son was the only young man in the village who didn’t have to go. He would live, while the others would most likely die.
Immediately, the farmer realized once again the wisdom of the wise man’s words, which he had doubted each and every time.