Missing the Forest for the Threes

You’ve heard the saying that bad news comes in threes. The bad news could take the form of rejection, failure, even death as in “three on a match.” Some people look for it. For instance, few want to hear of the death of two family members or close friends. People stay indoors until the third death when it’s safe to step outside again. They won’t admit it, of course, but it’s more common than you think.

I just came back from the funeral of a friend’s father who was a Marine in World War Two and fought at Iwo Jima. His death was not unexpected, since he had been ill, but it came after my uncle’s death just days before Christmas. So, two deaths occurred during the same holiday season. Then, as if to confirm Mark Twain’s assertion about death and taxes, I came home to find a tax bill from Albany for $2,500 for my 2012 return. I didn’t think they could go back that far, but I guess they can. When you have a Social Democrat with presidential ambitions for governor, anything can happen (note: California residents, beware).

Does this mean the bad news is over? After all, I have lived out the popular belief about threes in a classic way with death and taxes. As Ella Fitzgerald said, who could ask for anything more? Actually, being familiar with the Book of Job, I am painfully aware that God could ask for more, much more, so I won’t provoke him. I don’t want harm to come to anyone else, and I would rather not have a pox visited upon me.

Most of the bad news that comes in threes involves loss (e.g., life, health, money, love). During my holiday travels I had other losses. They were minor but telling: a wool beanie and rosary beads. The beanie could symbolize my losing my mind. The rosary beads are more ominous. Losing my faith? I always lose something when I travel. I left a jump rope in a hotel room once. Was that an omen of ill health? They called to tell me my daughter left “an item” behind. I didn’t explain. Sometimes words fail.

What do I make of this three business? Is it the result of how we humans organize reality, seeing patterns where they don’t really exist? Then there is the question of what “really exist” means. If something exists in my mind but not yours, is it real? Sounds awfully close to Oprah’s “your truth” and the riddle about a tree falling in the forest and making a noise (or not).

But maybe there’s something about “threeness” that approaches absolute truth. I’m not into numerology, and I reject Kabbalistic and Masonic theories. If I had time, I could plot occurrences of death and tax bills and see if they cluster in threes. But I would have to limit the data to my personal experience. Even the death of the World War Two veteran would be questionable, although my connection to his son might make up for what I lack in direct knowledge of the man.

This reminds me of the time years ago when I bought a 1968, red, VW beetle. I loved that car with its chrome bumpers, stick shift, and white bucket seats. It stood out in a crowd, which was the whole point. Then, one day I spotted another red beetle. Stunned, I waved nonchalantly, barely lifting my fingers from the steering wheel as the car passed in the opposite direction. The other driver did the same.

Eventually, there were more sightings. Once I knew what to look for, I started seeing red beetles everywhere. Disappointment nested in my heart. I sold the car a year later. As for bad news coming in threes, maybe we make it up. Maybe we do it to convince ourselves that we’ll be safe after the third death and all the bad news ends.

It’s called missing the forest for the threes.

Feature image by Ju On on Unsplash; door photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash; VW photo by HotelArizonaHD on Pixabay. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.


  1. Ay, Robert…the threes. I have always liked the arc or balance of three; perhaps, the earliest teaching I received about the Trinity, or the idea of the three wishes sometimes offered in fairytales, we were three sisters?

    The most important thing is that we are with you, traveling on the road of the three; be they losses or wishes. Long ago, I wrote a song for a community of worship. It was the first “song” I wrote and I wrote it during my first stay at a Benedictine monastery. The monastery was in a remote and isolated area and the weather was dark and cold. I felt so alone in the dark and cold cell and definitely wanted to leave.

    I thought of my song as I read your post-threes:)

    The light of God surrounds me,
    The love of God enfolds me,
    The power of God protects me,
    The presence of God watches over me.
    Wherever, wherever I am, God is.

    The light of God surrounds you,
    The love of God enfolds you,
    The power of God protects you,
    The presence of God watches over you.
    Wherever, wherever you are, God is.

    The light of God surrounds us,
    The love of God enfolds is,
    The power of God protects us,
    The presence of God watches over us.
    Wherever, wherever we are, God is.

    And so it is.

    I would have attached the song, but technologically skilled? Not so much:)

    Thank you, Robert, and blessings on your week.

      1. Yes. Last comment, I promise:). I wanted to leave you with this favorite image of mine: There is a house of prayer in the foothills of the Rockies. I have gone there regularly since I worked for the Pueblo Diocese-many years! Apart from the silent, directed retreats, my favorite thing is this…The space has many acres and is also a wild life sanctuary.

        My favorite thing is to sit high up, facing East, watching the constantly changing weather come in, lightening, wind, rainbows, hail storms, snow, sun rise, sun set- you get the picture. In Colorado, the weather can go from Spring to being snowed in! Last May, that is exactly what happened!

        Anyway, I spend hours, days, and nights watching the “weather” move through, and the images are ones I keep company with, often in my life.

        I hope you can go there some time.
        No response is necessary-ever-I can imagine how busy and pushed things can be.

        1. Reminds me of A River Runs Through It. The author had spent time as a forest fire watcher. He would live in a tree house in the middle of the forest and alert the rangers if he saw smoke or fire…months at a time…sounds nice.

  2. Quite agree about the mystic lure of threes!

    But – for good or ill – I hear Ethel Merman singing “Who could ask for anything more?” – not Fitzgerald.

    BTW, loved your “The Second Coming” explication last week – various forces kept me from commenting.

  3. If I must be compelled to orgaize my programed existence in something in a coherrent way through superstitious notions. I dismiss it immediately and think about a specific constuct such as Moe, Larry, and Curley…. But ahhh yes, there is no perfect grouping. or pattern written in stone There is always exponention. A closer look through the minds magnifying glass. Deviation and unlimited exception to the rule. No perfect definition as Shemp and Joe Besser will tell you.

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