Friday, February 13, 2009

The Good Kind of Bad Luck

The Good Kind of Bad Luck

My ex-wife’s father used to be able to control the weather. I don’t mean by that that he could aim lightning or direct a particular cloud to drop its rain on a specific farmer, but if you needed good weather on a particular weekend he was the man to talk to. Of course, this magical service came at a price and with a grave warning. In his view, the universe was normally balanced, good days and bad days, good luck and bad luck. By nudging a given weekend into the good column where it might not naturally have been an imbalance was created. In compensation, some future storm would be extra bad or some other day rotten when it might not have been. Tropical paradises provide the most dramatic illustration of this principle. Their months of sunshine, cool breezes, and brief refreshing showers are balanced with a hurricane’s few days of terror and destruction.

All we can ever do is prepare for the bad and properly enjoy the good. The same is true for more than weather. No one’s life is all good or all bad. Certainly the percentages seem to vary from person to person and here, perhaps, the concept of ‘karma’ comes into play, but everyone has some sort of bad luck in their lives and the best you can hope for is to have the “good” kind of bad luck.

For example, I’m driving down the interstate in a small hatchback when I notice a semi about to pass me on the left and hear the flapping/slapping sound of a tire shredding itself. I assume that one of the truck’s tires is coming apart and, with nowhere to hide, I just hang onto my steering wheel and pray that I don’t get any large chunks of truck tire smashing through my side window. I slow down to let it pass more quickly and then it’s ahead of me, its tires intact, and the sound continuing. Oops, it must be me.

I pulled over and, sure enough, one of my rear tires had shredded itself. Bad luck, but not nearly so bad as it might have been. Uncharacteristically, I was alone in the car and traveling with almost no luggage to an event I did not have to be at and where I was not expected. The weather was dry and pleasant with an hour left before sunset. I had known that those rear tires had been needing replacement, and had just put off getting new ones bought and installed. Out of a sense of caution I went around to check the condition of my other rear tire. Bald, yes, but still operational, and then…I noticed the brand name. Factory originals, on a car with one hundred and six thousand miles on it. I’d bought the car used with sixty-four thousand miles on it and relatively new front tires. It was a front wheel drive car so I hadn’t really given the rear tires much consideration. I had been driving a rolling miracle, and usually with a full load (including my wife and two kids) and on a tight schedule.

Grateful for my many blessings I swapped the ruined tire for the little donut spare and gingerly drove home praying for the continued stamina of my remaining factory original. Not only did my good luck hold, it extended even further. In spite of my lengthy jaunt down the interstate waiting for the truck to pass I somehow hadn’t ruined the rim of the wheel on my flat tire. In celebration I may have bought four new tires that day, I don’t remember.

Things happen to people and the optimists among them respond, “well, it could have been worse.” The humorous among us may even derive some pleasure in elaborating on all the particular ways in which it might have been worse. I am not that way. I can empathize all too well with the discomfort, suffering, and even tragedy of true misfortune. Some people’s stories make me want to cry.

One afternoon, in the summer of 1993, my wife and I were coping with a rainstorm that had filled the window wells on one side of the house and had water streaming into the basement. With a bucket in my hands I turned to her and said, "I’m glad we’re not in Iowa.”

“Why?” she asked, thinking it a spectacularly irrelevant thing to say in the drama of our moment.

“I hear they’re having flooding up in Iowa.”

We were having a bad afternoon, an inconvenience, an annoyance. But it was just a dramatic rain storm and a poorly graded backyard. Elsewhere in the Midwest rivers had risen, homes had disappeared, levees had been breached, livelihoods had been destroyed. The city of Des Moines had lost its water treatment plant. It had been raining somewhere in Iowa for more than forty days and forty nights. Jokes about Noah were no longer funny.

Whenever we are having good times we need to really notice just how good those times are and store up those pleasant memories for the hard days to come. And when the bad has come into your life, as it does for everyone, pay attention to everything good that’s still there in the picture with you. Appreciate what it is to have the good kind of bad luck.

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