Sometimes Life’s Slaps In The Face Come With Collateral Benefits If We Are Wise Enough To See Them

Bad things can generate collateral damage in reverse — collateral benefits.

Apr 17 · 6 min read
Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

By David Grace (

Sometimes the bad things that drop out of the sky bring us unexpected rewards. We just have to be wise enough to recognize them.

Let me illustrate this with a true story, though the names and personal details have been changed.

Maria’s Story

Some time ago on a long flight, I began a conversation with the woman, Maria, in the seat next to mine. As we cruised over the Pacific she told me her story:

Maria had been born in Chile in an upper-middle-class family. Her father owned several businesses. They had servants and she went to private schools, but in 1975 the political situation under Pinochet forced the family to flee to America.

The family lost half its wealth and she lost all her friends. As a teenager, she was forced to start over in a new country and become fluent in a new language.

At age twenty she married her high-school boyfriend, a dashing young man named Frank. She had led a privileged, sheltered life and had never held a job or even learned how to drive a car. Once they were married, Frank put an end to that. He made her get out there and earn that minimum-wage paycheck.

Maria soon became pregnant with fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. Unfortunately, a wife and family did nothing to cure Frank of his high-school partying ways. Each weekend Frank and his low-life friends hit the bars while Maria stayed home, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children.

You can imagine how well that marriage worked out. Within a few years Maria was divorced with two young children to raise on her own. She held down two jobs and somehow they scraped by.

Then she met Robert, who pledged his undying love. Soon they were married. Unfortunately, Robert turned out to be a degenerate alcoholic. Maria tried everything, but numerous rehab efforts failed to halt Robert’s increasingly severe drinking.

She joined Al-Anon, the organization that provides counseling for the friends and family of alcoholics. It helped her, but nothing helped Robert.

By the time the twins entered high school, Robert was barely able to hold a job. Eventually, Maria realized that he would never stop drinking. She divorced him the year that Elena and Michael graduated from high school. Maria again worked two jobs and the kids got student loans and enrolled in college.

Michael graduated but Elena dropped out after a year and a half. After that, she held a series of low-skilled jobs — waitress, receptionist, clerk in a T-Mobile store, etc.

Michael had excellent computer and technical skills and he secured a good-paying job with a high-tech company and became a vegetarian.

Elena continued to drift until one day Michael told Maria that for a long time Elena had been using drugs. Maria and her family scraped together several thousand dollars and they sent Elena to a good rehab facility. Within a month of completing the program, Elena was living on friends’ couches and again back on drugs. As of the day of our plane ride, Elena was still on the streets, still living the druggie life.

Is This A Sad Story?

So, what do you make of this story?

Maria started out with a life of privilege, then was up-rooted and taken to a foreign country. Her parents lost much of their money. She married a party animal who spent all his free time boozing it up with his low-life friends.

She became a divorced single mother working two jobs and was still barely able to make enough to feed and clothe her kids. Then she married a degenerate alcoholic who eventually couldn’t hold down a job. As if that wasn’t enough, her daughter became a drug user without a permanent address.

Do you feel sorry for Maria?

Don’t, because she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She looked at these events in a very different way.

How Maria Saw Things

Notice The Collateral Benefits

Here’s how she saw it:

  • Yes, she had to leave her friends and her home, but she ended up living in the United States. In her eyes that was a huge win.

A big collateral benefit.

  • Yes, she married a man with the emotional maturity of a sixteen-year-old who spent most of their marriage and much of his wages on booze and partying, but without him she wouldn’t have had Elena and Michael.

Another collateral benefit.

  • Yes, Frank made her get a minimum-wage job, but that forced her to grow up from a sheltered child into a working adult. Without Frank she wouldn’t have had a job or even learned how to drive a car.

Two more collateral benefits.

  • Yes, she married an alcoholic, but Robert pushed her, nagged her and hounded her to file for her citizenship when she didn’t want to be bothered to do the paperwork. It was only because of his constant nagging that she completed the paperwork and became an American citizen.

Now, as an Hispanic immigrant and with Donald Trump as President, that’s a super-huge collateral benefit.

  • It was Robert’s alcoholism that caused her to get the intensive counseling that made her a stronger, wiser and happier person. She believes that the counseling she got at Al-Anon was one the best things that ever happened to her. It absolutely changed her life for the better.
  • It was that counseling that gave her the strength and knowledge to deal with Elena’s choice to live a life on drugs.

A really big collateral benefit.

Try Not To Feel Bad About Problems You Didn’t Cause & Can’t Fix

What about Elena? Maria knows that she can no more make Elena stop using drugs than she can stop the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Elena’s choices are beyond Maria’s control.

Maria’s choices are: Get up every morning and feel sad about a problem she didn’t cause and cannot fix or recognize that Elena has chosen the life she’s living and that Maria has no power to change that choice.

Maria understands that allowing yourself feel bad about problems you didn’t cause and cannot solve is self-destructive and pointless.

So Maria’s mechanism for dealing with all these problems was:

  • Try very hard not to feel bad about problems you didn’t cause and can’t fix
  • Try to feel good by noticing the collateral benefits those problems have given you

Maria’s Life Today

So, instead of complaining that she had to leave her friends and her country and learn a new language, that her husbands were losers, that she had to work two jobs, that one of her kids was on drugs, Maria will tell you that she

  • is an American citizen
  • with a good job,
  • owns her own home,
  • is healthy,
  • has good friends, and
  • has a son who is happy, healthy, has a good job and lots of friends, who doesn’t smoke or drink and who is still a vegetarian.

What Lesson Did I Learn From This Story?

What I learned from Maria’s story is that you can approach setbacks and problems and smacks in the face at least two ways. You can focus on the pain, feel awful, and complain about the bad things that have happened to you and the bad breaks you’ve suffered through no fault of your own.

You can complain about how you haven’t had as happy a life as you think you’re entitled to.

Or, you can stop beating yourself up over bad situations you didn’t cause and can’t fix and instead look for the good things that the bad things have brought into your life and then you can celebrate those unexpected benefits.

When you trip and fall you can look down into the sewer at your feet or you can look up at the stars above your head. Your choice.

Maria chose to look up.

After Maria had finished her story and reclined her seat to take a nap, I wondered if I had been in her place if I would have been strong enough to accomplish what she had achieved.

Collateral Benefits

Maria taught me that bad things can generate good results, collateral damage in reverse — collateral benefits.

She taught me that in bad times, as much as possible, we should look for, embrace and celebrate the collateral benefits that we may get as byproducts of our misfortune.

Rather than poisoning ourselves by obsessing over our disaster, instead we might be able to grasp a chunk of happiness by appreciating the collateral benefits that, without the disaster, we never would have received.

–David Grace (

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Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 17 novels and over 200 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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