Good & Bad

Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton Moskowitz

"You probably have something really wizardly to say about all of this," I challenged, not hiding my sarcasm very well.
I was in a foul mood. Running into my friend, the King of Rational Thought, while waiting for a table at a neighborhood restaurant had cheered me for a split second. But once I related to him everything that had happened to me in the last five hours, my sullen grey outlook returned.
It started when the kitchen sink backed up before I'd even gotten dressed for work. Resorting to a plumber's helper, I inadvertently popped the drain fitting below the sink, causing a cascade of water to run down the inside of the wall.
I finished cleaning up that mess only to discover that my hot water tank had broken, turning a corner of my basement into a lake. Later that morning, one of my biggest clients postponed a large project. But the capper was the call from the IRS about a possible audit.
When I finished the story, the King of Rational Thought asked me the strangest question.
"You haven't died yet, have you?"
I stared at him. He'd either tuned out my tale of woe, or he'd flipped. The latter seemed more likely.
"Huh?" I said. "What?"
"You're still alive, right?"
"Seems like it. Why?" This was not improving my mood. I wanted sympathy, and I wasn't getting it.
"Have you considered the fact that you can't call these events good or bad until you're dead?"
"Well now that seems brilliant," I said irritably. "It's kind of hard to call it once you're dead."
"True," said my friend, "but here's the point. You can't know whether something is good or bad until your life is over. Look, I'll give you an example. Once there was a farmer who had a horse he used to plow his field. One day, the horse ran away. The townspeople came around and said, 'Oh, that's too bad. What terrible misfortune.' But the farmer replied, 'Maybe it's bad, and maybe it's not. It's hard to say.'
"Three days later, the horse came trotting back into the barn leading five wild mares. 'What good fortune!' the townspeople said. But the farmer replied, 'Good, bad, it's hard to say.'
"Two days later, the man's son was thrown while trying to break one of the wild mares, and he fractured his leg. 'What bad luck,' said the townspeople. But the farmer just replied, 'Good, bad, it's hard to say.'
"A week later, the army came through the town, conscripting all the young men to go off to war. But they left the farmer's son because his leg was broken."
The King of Rational Thought looked me squarely in the eye. "Good, bad, it's hard to say," he said.
I didn't know how to reply.
"Do you ever play pinochle?" he asked.
Pinochle? My head spun as I tried to shift gears.
"Yes," I said, not having the foggiest idea where this was going.
"Have you ever been dealt a hand that looked lousy, but you ended up winning?"
"Yes." A faint glow appeared at the end of the tunnel.
"Have you ever been dealt a hand that looked great, but you ended up losing?"
"Yes." The light in the tunnel got brighter.
"Now do you understand what I mean? You can't tell whether a situation is good or bad until the hand has been completely played. In life," he concluded, "that means when your life is over."
"By the way," he added, "do you also know that once the pinochle cards are dealt, it's a complete waste of time, energy, and emotion to wish they were different?"
My friend's guests arrived just as the maitre d' appeared to take us to our respective tables, and we parted. Once seated, I stared out at the ferry reviewing the ideas I'd just heard. He was right. There didn't seem to be much point in ruining my whole day over events that were outside my control. As the sun broke through my emotional storm clouds, I decided to encourage myself even further.
I skipped lunch and ordered dessert.