Clear examples of this global story can be found in Jewish, Taoist, and Buddhist collections. One popular version set in China tells of a man’s run-away horse, which initiates a series of losses and gains that eventually save his son from being forced into battle by the local war- lord. In the wonderful anthology of Jewish Folktales, Solomon and the Ant, Sheldon Oberman and Peninnah Schram connect their version through the Babylonian Talmud to Rabbi Akiva’s life and teaching (50- 135 C.E.).
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
Despite an already long day on their horses, two friends push themselves and their beasts to reach the next gated town before nightfall. The road they traveled was known for its bandits and they didn’t want to be caught out on their own after dark.
Just as the sun slips over the horizon, they see a town in the distance. When they arrive, they knock on the gate.
A voice rises from behind the wall, “The gate is closed for the evening. Come back tomorrow.”
“Please,” protests the first friend, “we’ve been traveling all day and could use some food and a warm bed.”
“The gate is closed. Come back tomorrow.”
“You must understand,” continues the first friend, “there are bandits on this road and without the protection of your walls, we are in danger.”
“How do we know that you’re not the bandits? The gate is closed.
Come back tomorrow.”
As the two men walk their horses back from the gate, the first friend despairs, “Can you believe our luck? After traveling all day, we must have missed the gate by a matter of minutes. Look at those clouds. What if it rains? This is terrible.”
“Well,” says the second, “who knows, maybe it’s terrible and maybe it’s not. Let’s find a place to camp.”
So the men get back on their horses and find a clearing beside the road that they passed earlier in the day. They settle their horses and build a fire. Comforted by its warmth, they begin to cook their food. At that moment, the clouds open and it begins to pour. The fire goes out and the men are drenched. They gather their belongings and move farther from the road, hoping to find some protection from the rain by clinging to the hillside.
As they walk their horses, the first friend says, “You know, it was bad enough to not get into the town, but now we’re soaked and our dinner is ruined. How terrible.”
“Well,” says the second, “who knows, maybe it’s terrible and maybe it’s not. Let’s see if we can find some shelter.”
The first friend is about to tell the second what he might do with that shelter, when they happen upon a cave. Glad to be out of the weather, the men leave their horses by the entrance and go inside. It’s deeper than they wish to go without a torch. Happily, there’s plenty of room for them both at the front. Lying on the ground, but covered by dry blankets from their saddlebags, the men are about to fall asleep, when they hear a roar from the back of the cave. The horses spook and gallop away. The friends run for their lives and quickly climb a tree.
“Unbelievable,” exclaims the first. “What are the chances of so many things going wrong? We have no luck at all. Our horses are gone. The rain is falling so hard that I can hardly hear myself think. This is terrible.”
“Well,” says the second, “who knows, maybe it’s terrible and maybe…” One look from his friend makes it clear that he better not finish the sentence.
Afforded a view from the trees, the men see a collection of torch lights moving swiftly along the road. “Such a large party. It must be a dignitary,” posits the second friend.
“And if it’s a dignitary,” continues the first, “they will certainly open the gate for him.”
With that, the two men scramble down their tree and run for the road. They emerge from the bushes at its edge, shouting and waving their arms just as the party gallops past. Because of the rain and the darkness, they go unnoticed.
“What do you have to say to that?” asks the first friend. “Any pithy words of wisdom to offer?”
“Well,” says the second, “I still say, who knows? We might as well start walking for town. By the time we arrive, the sun will be up.”
Several hours of silence later, the two men arrive at the gates, one of which is ripped from its hinges. They enter to find burnt buildings and the town turned upside down. Most of those finding their way through the wreckage are very old or very young. A woman tells them, “The bandits came in the middle of the night, broke through the gate, stole from our homes, and took many of our people as slaves.”
After spending a week at the village, helping wherever they could, the two friends take their leave. When the town drops from sight, the first friend turns to the second, “If the guard had let us in that night, we would have been taken as slaves with the townspeople. If the rain had not come, dousing our fire and driving us to seek shelter away from the road, we would have been seen by the bandits as they passed. If we had succeeded in getting back to the road in time to wave down the party, they would have taken us then. All these things I thought were terrible…in the end, they kept us safe.”
The second smiles, “Which is why, my friend, whenever something out of my control seems bad, I try to withhold judgment. I remind myself out loud: Maybe it’s terrible and maybe it’s not – who knows?”