Bad things happen in threes, my relatives used to tell me.
I never understood why “in threes.” Except that things often happened in threes.
Sneezes, for example. Whenever Auntie Rosie sneezed, she paused for several seconds after the first sneeze with her face all scrunched up. Then the second sneeze came.
“Wait for it!” she would order.
Sure enough, a third sneeze soon followed.
Some sources will tell you that the “rule of threes” derives from trench warfare in the First World War. Two soldiers could safely light their cigarettes off a single match. But if you kept the match alight long enough for a third soldier to light up, enemy snipers had time to aim. One dead soldier.
But the rule of threes surely goes back far before that.
Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, has three personifications of the ultimate divinity: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
Threes are endemic in Christianity. The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In baptisms, people are dipped or sprinkled three times. Everyone knows there were three Wise Men – although the Bible itself never cites that number. Resurrection came on the morning of the third day. Peter denied Jesus three times; Jesus countered by asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Jesus rejected three temptations in the wilderness…
Perhaps the emphasis on threes comes from living in a three-dimensional world.
So, outside of religion, we have three little pigs. Three musketeers. Three strikes and you’re out. One, two, three, go!
And think of all those jokes: “Three men walk into a bar…”
When I led writing workshops, I taught that three well-chosen details could define a character. And that three examples would prove convincing; additional examples simply added boredom.
So I wonder if we humans have some kind of instinctive preference for paying attention when things happen in threes.
One could be just a random occurrence, after all. Two might be a coincidence. Three feels as if there must be a larger plan of some kind, some intentional design unfolding.
A friend had that feeling about some recent news events.
Her son died.
Followed by the discovery of 215 nameless children’s bodies, buried near the Kamloops Residential School.
And right after that, four members of a Muslim family, run down and killed by the driver of a pickup truck in London, Ont.
Her emotions went numb. “I just can’t feel anything for anyone, anymore,” she said.
It’s sometimes called compassion fatigue.
You’d like to care. But you can’t. You have nothing left to care with.
It seems to me these clusters of threes commonly include at least one personal tragedy.
Maybe more than one.
The personal aspect affects only a limited number of people. And there will be no connection between those personal losses and the external tragedies. But nevertheless, they have a cumulative effect.They overwhelm.
In recent weeks, we’ve had two collective shocks. The condo building that collapsed in Surfside, Fla. And the fire that erased the village of Lytton in a single night.
Unconnected, unrelated, events.
But I wonder how many people will fuse those two events with a private tragedy of their own. And conclude, once again, that bad things happen in threes.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.