Silver Linings

Last term I attended the Year 9 camp at the picturesque Wilpena Pound. I was fortunate to have a group leader, ‘Joey’, who shared with the class his wisdom using ancient Chinese proverbs and stories. There was one proverb which really set the tone for our camp. It is the story of “The Old Man Who Lost His Horse” and all Chinese know it as 塞翁失馬焉知非福 (Saiweng Shima, Yanzhi Feifu):

During the Han Dynasty—in the third century B.C.—an old man living on China’s border one day lost his horse. His neighbours all said what terrible luck that was, and sympathized with the old man. But Sai Weng said: “Maybe losing my horse is not a bad thing after all.”

Lo and behold, the next day the old man’s horse returned, together with a beautiful female horse alongside him. All the neighbour’s exclaimed: “What great luck!” But the old man responded: “Maybe this is not such good luck after all.”

The old man had a strong young son. The boy fell in love with the new horse and rode her every day. One day the new horse got spooked by a wild animal and threw the boy from her back. He broke his leg very badly and was permanently crippled.

All Sai Weng’s neighbours said: “What a tragedy, your strong son will never walk without pain again.” But the old man again said: “Maybe this is not such a bad thing after all.”

And so it went that when the New Year came, the emperor’s army passed through the border region and recruited all able young men to fight in the frontier war. Because the old man’s son was crippled he could not fight and was left in the village to farm with his father. Sai Weng said to his neighbour’s: “You see, it all turned out okay in the end. Being thrown from the horse and breaking his leg saved my son from fighting in the war and almost certain death. So it was in the end a lucky thing after all.”

Whenever a bad thing happened on camp (e.g., it began to rain or someone fell over and stubbed their toe), Joey would remind the students of “Sai Weng Shi Ma” (Remember “The Old Man Who Lost His Horse”) to help acknowledge that sometimes apparently bad things have a silver lining. 

Viewing situations from a different perspective (called cognitive reappraisal in psychological terms) is often a useful strategy to regulate emotions. For example, reappraising the fact it rained on camp and acknowledging how much the flora and fauna within Wilpena Pound needed the rain to survive, was a helpful way of considering the situation. 

However, this is not to say that all negative emotions should be reasoned away. Indeed, research suggests cognitive reappraisal is most useful for situations where events are uncontrollable. The reason being, is that for situations that can be directly changed or controlled, reappraisal may undermine the adaptive role of emotions for motivation.

How we manage setbacks, mistakes and failures is influenced by both our genetic and environmental influences. Whilst it may be challenging to see the good in the bad at first. With constant practice, it should become easier.


Chris Clements

School Psychologist