Living

Triumph and disaster - two sides of the same coin

When my wife, Wendy, was a young woman, she kept a copy of the poem If by the English writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) on her bedside table.

It is a much-loved piece of verse in Britain, and regularly tops polls to find the nation's favourite poem.

It begins:

"If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated, don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise."

It continues in a similar manner for three more verses, saying that if you can dream but not let your dreams cloud your reason; if you can think but be active too; if you can see your plans fail but never give up hope; and so on; and so on; then:

"Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son."

I remember, at the time, being unimpressed, and - with a young man's arrogance - dismissing the poem as trite and insincere.

I was particularly dismissive of two lines from the second verse:

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster.

And treat those two impostors just the same."

After all, I thought, triumph and disaster are not the same.

So why would you treat them as though they were? What nonsense!

But now, 30 years on, having experienced my allotted share of life's triumphs and disasters, I think that perhaps Kipling was onto something after all.

As a young man, I thought that it was necessary in life to move from triumph to triumph: to meet with success and never failure; to be loved and never hated; to be trusted and never doubted.

But I have since learnt things are messier than that. I now believe that what is necessary is to learn to meet calmly and cheerfully with all of the circumstances of life: success and failure, love and hate, trust and doubt.

I am not entirely sure why, but now, when I think of Kipling's If,? it brings to mind a story which is sometimes said to be a Zen parable and sometimes said to be a Taoist parable, but which may in fact be neither.

A long time ago - so the story goes - there was an old farmer whose horse ran away.

His neighbour heard about it and stopped by to commiserate with him. "Such a misfortune!" the neighbour said.

The farmer pondered for a moment, and then replied: "Perhaps so."

Some days later, his horse returned, followed by a number of wild horses. His neighbour heard about it, and stopped by to congratulate him.

"What a stroke of luck!"? the neighbour exclaimed.

The farmer thought a while, and then replied: "Perhaps so."?

The following morning, the farmer's son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but it threw him to the ground, breaking his leg.

"What a terrible accident!" the neighbour said. "Perhaps so," the farmer replied.

Soon afterwards, an army captain came to the farmer's village, conscripting young men to fight in a war. Because of his broken leg, the farmer's son was spared.

"What wonderful news!" the neighbour declared. "Perhaps so," the old farmer replied.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Triumph and disaster - two sides of the same coin'. Print Edition | Subscribe