It only took a few moments before the rumbling began.
It was Saturday, the 3rd of October. Since Wednesday, my wife and I had been in California, visiting a client. That night, we ate at a restaurant in downtown Pleasanton. Like many other small towns, they closed traffic to their main street in the evenings and turned it into an area for outdoor eating. Dozens of diners sat under a big, yellow canopy.
We ordered drinks, and sipped glasses of water as we waited. That’s when the rumbling began.
Something above us shook. Then around us.
The shaking turned into a roar. Then the canopy collapsed, slowly, as if breaking as it got lowered. We felt like we’d been thrown inside a trash compactor.
My wife and I jumped from our seats as the canopy’s thick fabric brushed our heads. The metal rods came down all around us, missing our heads. I ducked lower. The rumbling died down as the canopy, now broken and more than halfway sagged, slowed its implosion.
A nearby couple wasn’t as lucky. One of the metal beams toppled onto their table. They crawled from beneath the mess. Later, I’d learn the woman was pregnant. I grabbed part of a beam and pushed it back up. A few other people joined in and, together, we partially raised the canopy, enough to somewhat fold and carry it away.
At some point during this, I asked my wife if she was okay. She was, and so was the other couple. Nobody got injured.
But what the heck happened?
When we got out from under the canopy, we were surrounded by an explosion of branches and leaves. A tree trunk the size of a telephone pole rested sideways, next to the canopy. Its base, planted in the sidewalk, had snapped. I put my had on the stump and felt how dry and spongy it was. The tree must have been dead for a long time before it had keeled over and crashed onto the canopy.
As everyone gawked, the four of us briefly bonded as only survivors do, congratulating each other and cracking jokes. Within a few minutes, the restaurant had their tables set back up, sans canopy, and we resumed our meal – drinks dearly needed – under the night sky. The fallen tree remained in place.
Cops arrived to get the story. The owner showed up to apologize. We got our meal free.
Because we were still surrounded by the destruction, gawkers stopped every couple of minutes.
We felt like celebrities as we told the story of what had happened.
A man in his late 60s or early 70s stopped by the stump, shined a flashlight on its jagged, exposed top, and a small crowd gathered. He spoke to them, too far away for us to hear, and made pointing gestures.
“I think he’s explaining to everyone what happened,” I said. “Heh – even though he wasn’t here.”
My wife smiled, amused. “Ah, how good of him to explain everything.”
“Hey,” I said, “this is his big chance to get laid. Look, he’s got his handy flashlight and everything. Let him have his moment.”
The guy hung around, talking extensively to anyone who stopped by but, despite an especially detailed retelling to a woman near his age, he found no prospects and moseyed on, alone.
After we finished eating and walked a few steps down the street, I grabbed my wife’s hand, stopped her, grasped her other hand, and began to gently spin her. We’d learned a few dance moves on YouTube for our wedding. Now felt like a good time to bust them out. She laughed, delighted. A teenager came by with a boombox on wheels.
“What song would you guys like me to play?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Anything romantic.”
He put on a slow piano instrumental, and left the boombox behind as he kept walking, to give us some privacy. A nice gesture, even though we were surrounded by diners. For a couple of minutes, my wife and I danced on the dark road lit by streetlights. When we finished, the closest tables clapped for us. My wife couldn’t stop smiling.
I thought about how setbacks and disasters can sow the seeds of equivalent or greater benefit. My wife and I had been late for our dinner reservation and missed a table in a different area – where, apparently, there weren’t any collapsing trees. If we had shown up on time, we wouldn’t have gotten this story – or the free meal (and many, many free drinks).
The evening before, some new neighbors to our hotel room had cranked their TV loud, even past midnight.
I called the front desk about it. “We’re so sorry!” The TV remained loud. I called again. “We’re so sorry!” Still loud. I called two or three more times.
The noise faded but only via our neighbors’ dwindling urge to party. The next morning, when I went down to the front desk and said, “We need to switch rooms,” they didn’t even ask what I meant. We got an upgraded room at no extra charge. I also got $10 worth of cold brew coffee from their snack bar, for free.
Would I have preferred quiet neighbors? Yeah. But that wasn’t what life gave me. So, I cheerfully took the upgraded room and drinks.
Setback. Benefit. Setback. Benefit. It’s easy to see the setback when one gets thrown in your face (or literally falls on top of you). Seeking the benefit isn’t as easy or obvious.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the setback that there’s no room to notice what could get better as a result.
The next day, we visited a friend. Like me and my wife, she practices Daoist meditation and is constantly amazed by how it enhances her mental attitude and awareness. After we told her the story of the tree falling, she showed us a photo from her phone. She’d been walking down a park path when a giant branch from a tree snapped off and fell just ten or fifteen feet from her. If she’d been 30 seconds behind, it might have crushed her.
A couple days after that, my wife and I visited one of our Daoist teachers. He said a tree had fallen in their backyard a few days earlier. Interesting.
“Maybe it’s about old, dead stuff shedding away,” I said. Or it could have been a coincidence. Maybe ‘twas the season for falling trees. But I’ve found my life gets better in proportion to the meaning I ascribe moments. My meaning might turn out wrong, but the crucial part is seeking meaning at all.
When setbacks or disasters sow the seeds for benefits, they’re not always immediate or obvious. Sometimes, you’ll never make the connection, but that makes it no less real. And it’s easy to deny yourself the benefit.
You can deny yourself the equivalent benefit in 4 ways:
- Refusing to be grateful
- Refusing to seek the benefit
- Resigning yourself to remain bitter
- Refusing to practice persistence
When you refuse to feel grateful, you program your brain to remain fixated on the downside. Focus is good for solving problems, but when you deny yourself even a modicum of gratitude, no matter how crazy or stupid it seems, you shut off a mental pipeline for creative solutions and your ability to notice the upside.
If I had remained pissed or paranoid about the canopy falling on me and my wife, we would have been incapable of enjoying a post-meal dance.
When you refuse to seek out the benefit, you won’t find it. That reminds me of a certain verse from the Bible: Seek and ye shall find.
When you resign yourself to remain bitter, it’s like clinging to the railing of a sinking ship and yelling, “See? See? I’m doomed!” to the people on the waiting life raft.
When I called the hotel staff, I was to-the-point but still polite. I’m sure that helped us get an upgraded room. Plus, I was persistent during the noisy neighbor episode. Would I have gotten an upgrade without that? Not a chance. If you refuse to practice persistence, it’s like letting go of the sinking ship’s rail, swimming halfway to the life raft, and then giving up.
Plus, it’s good to keep your sense of humor. One of the cops, before leaving the scene of the fallen tree and collapsed canopy, squatted in front of a 5-year-old that was dining with his family. “Did you push this tree over?”