In the wake of the devastating images and news coming out of Japan recently, I doubt anyone needs to be reminded that disaster can strike at any time.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have to wait for earthquakes and tsunamis to raise my disaster awareness this month. A couple of weeks ago, a major snowstorm in our area proved too much of a burden for a huge tree across the street from me, and it came crashing down onto my house in the early hours of the morning.

This may not be what they’re thinking of when people use the term “rude awakening”, but I can’t think of a better example. Taking out half my roof, and dumping most of my ceiling onto my floor (and onto my freaked-out cat)…that’s pretty rude. And very awakening.whuhuh

It was almost too dark to see anything when it first happened, and I had only been asleep for a couple hours, so at first I just stood in shock and tried to comprehend what I was seeing. And to figure out where my cat was.

Once the reality of what had happened became clear, the urge to be overwhelmed and freaked out was very strong. Very, very strong. I couldn’t even take a step around my house, I didn’t know where my cat was among all the rubble (or if he was OK), my house was now open to the sky in the middle of a once-in-a-generation snowstorm…and did I mention I had no power, no phone, no Internet, and my car was irretrievably snowed in?

In other words: DISASTER!!!

All of that zoomed up to the forefront of my mind within about a minute of my hazy awakening. (Re-enactment of that moment: “Huh, what was that? Ohhhhh…”)

I recognized right away (based on the racing of my heart, probably) that there was a serious potential to flip out over what was going on. At the same time, my past experiences with tough living told me that the situation was going to require all the resources I could marshal, with a pretty slim margin of error if I wanted to make sure my world got right again any time soon. My new disaster could very easily become a series of disastrous days, and things still had a chance to get worse, if I failed to keep myself in a position to make them better.

So I made a decision in that moment,  even while I was still standing there staring around through the rubble, calling “Leo? Leo? Leo?!” in a daze of sleeplessness and shock. It had two parts:

1) Recognizing and accepting that nature had overridden my normal options for control of my environment and my life for the time being. The best I would be able to do for a while was to react. It would be some time before I would be in full control of the situation again.

2) Choosing to not panic, period. When you have no control over what happens, and all you can control is your reaction to what happens, then that’s all you can do. All the freaking out in the world won’t change that. So I chose to focus on doing that right: controlling my reaction to the situation, in the smartest, healthiest way possible.

I wasn’t as well-spoken as that to myself in the moment, but that’s the thrust of what I decided, standing among the plaster and dust and snow, and the expelled contents of my attic. The short version: I accepted that nature owned my ass for now, and vowed not to panic, no matter what happened.

It helped instantly. Even before I had recovered my poor panicked kitty, acknowledging that what happened had already happened, and that all I really had going for me was control over my reaction to it from here on out, was enormously empowering. It didn’t change what lay in front of me, but it put me in a position of knowing that despite circumstances, I was doing the most I could do.

And when the most you can do is slowly move pieces of your ceiling around so you can eventually let the dogs off the bed and hopefully find your cat still alive, so that you can then begin the thousand-step process to making things right again, knowing that you are actually doing the most you can do is about as reassuring as things get.

That governing philosophy—understanding how little control I had, but taking as much control as I could, and owning my ability to choose how to react—made a huge difference in the hours, days and weeks that followed the accident. It allowed me to keep my spirits up (as far as they could go, at least), it kept me from needlessly wearing myself down, and probably most importantly, it kept my head clear so that I could make the smartest decisions possible in situations where the health and happiness of my family were on the line. And that paid off time and time again throughout the crisis period.

I’m still in the “tree house” (ha ha) as I write this. The roof is tarped over, and mostly waterproof and tree-free. The ceiling is covered with sheets and plastic, and mostly airtight. The house is more-or-less livable, but definitely pretty cracked. And I have to move out as soon as I can and begin anew somewhere else. Until that’s finished, I’ll still be living in the shadow of the disaster that changed my life, nearly killed me, and really screwed up my weekend.

So I sit here, planning a new stage of my life. And I won’t lie to you—I’m still not happy that this tree crushed my house, and I’m gonna miss this place. But all in all, I feel OK.

I owe a lot of that to the kindness of my neighbors and friends, and to plain old luck. The fact that the roof had just been redone a few months earlier definitely didn’t hurt either. But there’s one primary reason why that disastrous tree wasn’t able to get the best of me after that first cheap shot: because I decided not to let it.

And trust me—it tried.


Lance Brown can be found at Archives of his column can be found here.