Good, Bad, Who Knows?

One of my favorite parables, of which there are several versions, goes like this: One day the one horse owned by a Russian peasant ran away.  The peasant went to the village wise man and complained bitterly about this loss because of the large economic impact it had on him. “This is so bad” the man insisted. After hearing this the wise man replied: “Good, bad, who knows?”  A few days later the horse returned, accompanied by several wild horses, significantly increasing the man’s wealth. He again went to see the wise man, this time exclaiming how good this was. The wise man again replied: “Good, bad, who knows?”  Sometime later the son of the man was trying to break one of the wild horses when it threw him and resulted in him having a broken leg. Again the man was distraught and visited the wise man who once again said “Good, bad, who knows?” Not long thereafter, the army of the Czar came through the town, recruiting all able-bodied young men.  Since the man’s son had a broken leg, he was not taken into the army. Unsurprisingly, the man saw this as good and told the wise man about it. As before, the wise man’s response was: “Good bad, who knows?”

Judgments of good and bad seem to be based on the assumption that we know enough, including about the future, to make them. But the “village wise man” has a very different perspective, one that is willing to withhold such judgments and just observe how things unfold. This, it seems to me, is consistent with NVC.

I’ve lately been impressed with how little we know about almost everything, in this world that changes moment by moment—whether we are aware of that or not.

A recent segment on the TV show “60 Minutes” about the reach of the newly deployed James Webb space telescope mentioned that there are billions of galaxies.  Billions of galaxies!  That’s a fact I am not able to get my mind around. Even one galaxy seems more than I can grasp. And the implications of billions of galaxies are simply awesome, put our problems in a vast perspective, emphasizing how little we know and provide grounds for profound humility.

Curiosity is, I think, an important component of NVC.  It is the opposite of assuming we know which, it seems to me, is often the source of all kinds of disconnection. So beginning with not knowing and curiosity generally seems to be a good place to begin in the face of real or imagined conflict.

In his book, The Book of Not Knowing, Peter Ralston invites the reader to undertake various mental exercises in order to clearly recognize the difference between believing and knowing. Much of what we think we know is merely belief and much of that is second hand rather than rooted in our own direct experience. Ralston argues that in order to really know, one must first go through the space of not knowing. But our culture disvalues not knowing.  So rather than experience that and acknowledge it, we are taught to substitute beliefs for knowing and to pretend to know when we don’t. And then we forget that we did that and end up thinking we know what we don’t. And firmly held beliefs are at the root of conflict within us, between us and throughout the world.

I think what Marshall Rosenberg offered via NVC is one way to free ourselves from our beliefs—both about the world and ourselves—and focus instead on our experience, what he called what’s alive in us. If we do that, we have a chance of actually knowing and actually connecting in a way that is transformative and deeply satisfying.


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