Encounters with the Unexpected
May 6, 2014
“Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night?”
-John Milton, 1634
We started our boat trip with grand plans on a windswept day. We needed to move our sailboat about 120 miles down the Ohio River, through a lock-and-dam system, to a location near our new house. The crisp fall day quickly turned to bluster, with headwinds taking on our meager 12-horsepower engine. We couldn’t put up the sails because we were going in the opposite direction. We had anticipated pulling into the new slip by late afternoon. Instead, as dusk settled, we were scouring nautical maps for a place to dock overnight. Most had been pulled out of the water for winter, but we found a year-round single dock down a narrow cove.
We needed more gasoline for the trip the next day as well as some food and drinks. And we needed to let our families know about the delay—there was no cell service in the rural river valley. My husband gallantly offered to hitchhike to a gas station while I remained on the boat with our dog. But I’ve seen enough scary movies to know that the person who stays behind doesn’t live to see the credits, so we began our trek together.
Car after truck after car passed us on the road. By this time, we were wet and tired, and I was frustrated and fighting tears. Finally, we saw brake lights. But when the car’s wheels hit the dewy grass, the driver lost control, and the car slipped down a small embankment. We hurried over. A second vehicle pulled in behind us.The first car was driven by a 16-year-old boy, out on his first solo drive. His inexperience couldn’t overcome a slide on wet grass; his Good Samaritan compassion for two desperate travelers, though, compelled him to stop. The second vehicle was driven by the boy’s girlfriend’s mother; she was following the boy and her daughter to make sure the first outing was successful.
We pushed his car back onto the road. The mother volunteered to take us to the gas station about five miles away. The boy, chastened by the grass, promised to take it slow the rest of the way home. My husband and I tucked into the pickup truck, which was full of the detritus of a mother of teenagers. We sat between cheerleader uniforms and books, groceries and boxes. At the station, we bought bologna and crackers, Big Red, Pop Tarts, and gas. We also called home.
After the woman dropped us off at the boat, we ate by candlelight, pulled on layers of clothes, and snuggled in the bow. I had a fitful night, my dreams a mash-up of Jaws and Friday the 13th movies.
As he drifted off to sleep, my husband told me not to worry. The next day would be wonderful. Just think how blessed we’d been. And indeed he was right. The next day was unseasonably warm, with a gentle breeze. We made great time, pulling into the new dock in a couple of hours.
There are two ways to look at this story. I saw the first day as a disaster. My husband looked at the blessings: the dock left in the water, the car that pulled over, the gas station with cell service. When plans go awry, when the unexpected derails your schedule, how do you respond? What might happen if you thanked God for the unexpected? How might you greet those situations with joy for the silver lining instead of frustration for the clouds?
I never thought of it quite this way before, but in a way, it’s the pessimist who is quicker to notice the blessings in a bad situation, and the optimist who is focused on the troubles. The pessimist expects bad weather, scarce facilities, and un-neighborly behavior. When the opposite appears, the pessimist is happily surprised. The optimist thinks sunshine, shelter, and eager help should be and will be available always, so the arrival of trouble feels like a curse. I’m not lobbying for pessimism. I think there’s some way between the two extremes that keeps the blessings–expected and unexpected–in the light.