Credit: Dennis E. Powell

Why We Can't Count Our Blessings

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 8:37 PM

Tuesday was the day that got designated for me to bring in the car, which was damaged September 7 by a deer that wanted to cosplay a hood ornament.

It took 10 weeks because it seems as though many people have settled upon leisurely lives following the pandemic, and because our system is currently arranged so that we have a surfeit of experts in vague areas ending in “-studies” and a shortage of people who can actually do things.

The day did not begin auspiciously. The body shop wanted my car by 8 a.m., so of course I had a hard time getting to sleep. I awakened, got ready, and thought I’d head to town — only to discover the car was covered by the most tenacious frost I’ve ever encountered, so what ought to have been a relaxed drive to town was ultimately a slightly panicked one.

Though I’d phoned them with all the information Monday afternoon and was assured everything was in order, after I’d turned over the keys to the body shop I got a call from the Hertz automobile rental company, the only such business in the area. Their news was that the card number I’d given them Monday was a debit card, not a credit card.

They did not explain why this mattered, inasmuch as the rental had been arranged by my insurance company, who would be paying for it. No, Hertz said, they needed a $50 refundable deposit. There was plenty of money on the debit card I’d given them, but too bad: no credit card, no rental car. Credit cards are how people get hangdog emails of apology when the servers of businesses who have their credit card numbers get cracked by criminals and all the information gets stolen, so I do not have one. I have a debit card and I keep on it an amount that won’t seriously affect my survival should it get stolen. I use it to pay my monthly bills to companies that don’t care about my financial security as much as I do, which is to say all of them.

I was about 20 miles from home and the expected rental car was not coming. I phoned my reliable neighbor, Tom, who said he’d be on his way shortly. It was then that I discovered that my iPhone, which had been fully charged an hour earlier but which had just undergone a minor system update, now had a 41 percent battery charge.

Tom didn’t arrive in the time I had expected. It turned out that the highway department had set up the barriers, apparently minutes after I left for town, and now there were long, slow lines to get past a contemplated repair project. I would have phoned him to inquire but my phone now reported it had a 7 percent charge.

In due course Tom arrived, we ran a couple of errands, and I ultimately got home. It was barely 10 a.m. I wanted to bolt the door and hide inside.

At such times I try to remember a useful parable, told by T.H. White in his “The Once and Future King,” a telling of the Arthurian legend. In it two travelers, a saint and a pilgrim if memory accurately spans the decades since I read it, seek lodgings at the home of a very old, very poor farm couple. Despite their privation the couple welcomed the travelers warmly and were generous with their meager them food and drink. The saint blessed them and he and the pilgrim went on their way. The poor old farmer was then heartbroken to discover that their one item of value, a milk cow, had died.

Hearing about it, the pilgrim turned to the saint and said words to the effect of “some value your blessings have!” To which the saint replied that the pilgrim did not understand: it was the old man’s wife who was supposed to die.

Or it sometimes does me good to think of an anecdote involving Saint Pope John Paul II, this one real and witnessed and probably on video someplace. Getting out of a car, he or someone managed to slam it closed on his hand. “Thank you, God,” said the wincing pope, obviously in pain, “for loving me in this way.” The first time I heard about it, probably the first time everybody hears about it, the immediate thought was that the pope was being funny, making a joke — “Some value God’s blessings on the pope have!”

But after a little consideration I more and more have come to believe that John Paul II meant it. He understood better than most of us how the world is like a vast Rube Goldberg contraption, with every detail leading to all that follows. We curl our pinkies and eruditely hold forth on how a butterfly flapping its wings sets events in motions that might produce a giant hurricane. In our fiction we talk of the “paradox of time,” in which the time traveler steps on a twig and ceases to exist because somehow that twig was necessary in the chain of events that led to his birth. (I loved this when I was in third grade: “but if he never existed he couldn’t have broken the twig, so he would exist, except then he did break the twig.” I thought that when I grew up I would know the answers to such things, and must remember that if ever I time travel I must not tell third-grade me that no, I don’t know the answer to that or much of any other important question.) It’s worth swirling around one’s mind, as if ideas get tasted the way wine does.

As is the idea, the possibility, that sometimes, maybe even always, bad things happen to prevent worse things and that by definition we’ll mostly never know what those worse things are. We’ve all heard stories about people who cursed a flat tire when they were on the way to the airport and thereby missed the flight that crashed. But we haven’t heard of the pilot who cursed the flat tire which made him late and caused the flight that would have crashed to be canceled instead.

In early 1986 some small problem caused the postponement of a space shuttle flight. While preparing it for a rescheduled launch, technicians discovered that a sensor had, undetected, broken off in a fuel line. Had the launch taken place, the whole thing would have exploded on the pad and NASA would now be run by someone else — among the passengers was U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator. I suspect he is glad for that initial small problem, though he probably wasn’t at the time.

It could be that by deciding to be unreasonable about my payment card and failing to provide the agreed-upon car, the Hertz company kept me from passing through an intersection at the moment an inattentive driver ran the red light. Or that by running out in front of my car and getting hit, that deer was prevented from dashing in front of a car full of kids, causing it to spin out of control and land upside-down in the creek, now swollen with rain. We cannot know, but we mustn’t disregard the possibility.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, though the general mood isn’t especially thankful. I’ll not try to talk you into thinking that the pandemic was a good thing (though the possibility it is over certainly is), or that our economic woes are something to be happy about (though if they cause some student to decide to go to technical school and learn autobody repair rather than pursue that dream of becoming a master of gay-studies, it would be a happy effect).

No, I won’t do that at all. Instead I’ll say that we all should give thanks — because we can. If we have reasons for thanksgiving that come to mind, that’s great. If we can’t think of any, that’s sad but I’ll give us one now.

We should be thankful for all those awful things that didn’t happen, due to divine intervention, even if that intervention came in a form that we didn’t much like at the time (and never knew how close to disaster we came). We’ll never know when or how they didn’t happen. I do not think that God is a politician. When we’re rescued from a disaster that we never even knew threatened us, it’s done silently and invisibly, even though the means are sometimes annoying.

That is an item of faith. And with faith, we cannot help but be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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