The Mudskipper
NOTES / Stories / My take on an old fable about a farmer

April 14, 2020 (1st draft)

Once there was a fish named Mudskipper who had really bony fins and bumpy skin, unfit for swimming very fast. All of his fish friends gathered around to commiserate. They said, "We are so sorry that you can't swim very fast. That is most unfortunate." Mudskipper said, "Hm" and awkwardly flipped around in the water.

The next day the lake the Mudskipper and his friends were in dried up, and he realized that his bony fins allowed him to skip in the mud on land, and that his bumpy skin could absorb oxygen from the air, unlike his friends who were flapping around uselessly, unable to breathe. They said, "Oh, isn't that lucky! You are going to survive while the rest of us die!" Mudskipper said, "Hm" and awkwardly skipped away in the mud.

The next day he met some Lungfish, who unlike Mudskipper had four bony fins instead of just two. They said, "How unfortunate that you only have two bony fins instead of four, which make it much easier to get around in these new lands much more swiftly." Mudskipper said, "Hm" and awkwardly skipped away in the mud.

The next day, food became scarce on the ground, and Mudskipper found that his bony fins had enough strength to allow it to climb a tree and find new food sources that the thriving Lungfish were unable to consume. The Lungfish slowly dwindled in numbers, victim of their own success. They said, "What great luck for you to have strong fins that allow you to find food in trees." Mudskipper said, "Hm" and awkwardly pulled itself up a tree.

The next day, a family of Mice moved into the neighborhood and were able to hop from branch to branch at speeds that left the Mudskipper with very few options on land or in trees. The Mice said, "Oh poor Mudskipper! Your strange bony fins and bumpy skin gave you just enough advantage to survive without evolving. You may have had a short term advantage over our great ancestors, the Lungfish, but we were forced to climb the evolutionary ladder these last 300 million years, and all that grief has paid off for us! Look at us now!" Mudskipper said, "Hm" and fell off the tree, splashing in a shallow pond. The cool water on his bumpy skin felt nice. He awkwardly flipped around in the water.

Based on this fable, retold by Alan Watts:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” 

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.