Ailin Quinlan: Why do bad things always come in threes? Or do they...

Do you believe in bad things coming in threes? Read Ailin Quinlan's column here...
Ailin Quinlan: Why do bad things always come in threes? Or do they...

A RUN OF BAD LUCK: A broken washing machine, car problems and a shower that stopped working — just three things that happened to Áilín this week. Picture: Stock

AFTER the first two things happened — traffic scares in different cars in less than 10 days — people were reassuring. “Bad things come in threes; you’ll be over and done by the end of the week,” they said.

Two days later a red light appeared on its front panel and the washing machine stopped working. Following the recommended steps merely resulted in a flood in the utility room.

“You’re grand now; these things always come in threes,” everyone laughed.

In Christianity, the concept of a trinity is big, as in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; none of whom, I observed grumpily, had visibly rushed to my aid during the car crises. Later the mechanic explained that my first car issue had been caused by damage to the fuel hoses which resulted in diesel leaking out beneath the rear wheels, causing the vehicle to skid around what is normally quite a busy back road. I had managed to stop the car and ring for help.

Later, I acknowledged, it was possible that somebody up there did have my back that particular morning, because there was normally a lot of traffic on that road as I drove to work. If another vehicle had happened along during those terrifying minutes, I might have ended up in a crash. But nothing did.

Even after the car was fixed, however, I refused to drive it. My husband and I exchanged vehicles. On my first morning driving my husband’s car to work, the accelerator suddenly seemed to get stuck. 

The steering wheel went limp, and within seconds my speed had shot up to over 100 kmph. Shaking, I pulled in and turned the engine off. Once again, luckily enough, the road was empty.

On investigation it emerged that, after giving absolutely no trouble to my husband, ever, the mat on the driver’s side of his vehicle had, that very morning somehow slipped its moorings and slid upwards, locking the accelerator and thereby doubling the speed of the car.

A few days later the washing machine broke.

I watched as my husband did exactly the same things to fix it that I had done earlier. The machine immediately started to work as normal. “It’s a man thing,” he smirked.

There is such a thing as Triaphilia (the belief that bad things come in threes). Everyone said I’d be okay now. I was okay now. Definitely.

Saturday morning. I was in the shower, washing conditioner out of my hair. Because this shower is connected to the water tank, it is not a powerful shower. It’s more like a pat on the head. I wished crossly that I could get rid of it and buy a decent one for once. That very moment the shower stopped.

Conditioner streamed into my eyes. I pressed the button and turned the shower off. I turned it on again. Nothing. My husband diagnosed burnout.

“Bound to happen,” he said comfortingly.

“These things have a life span, and that shower’s been going for donkey’s years.”

The shower had to be replaced. Ironically, the replacement had to be as similar as possible to the insipid thing that had just burned out, because it had to be, yes, connected to the water tank. So I had to more or less buy the same one again. Somewhere, something was laughing.

Later that day as I went around my house, several light bulbs blew when I turned them on. That did it. I finally blew a fuse myself.

“You didn’t nearly get killed in two car accidents, my husband argued. 

“There was no traffic on the road. And you wouldn’t have been electrocuted in the shower. Well, probably not, anyway.”

I told my friends. One suggested a cold dip in the sea to “ground me”. Another advised me to buy myself something nice and to try not to think about it.

“They think I’m losing it,” I thought.

Sunday morning. I was working on my laptop when the laptop screen as well as the large screen beside it turned black. My husband found that a fuse had blown in the main switchboard. Theoretically he said, the problem may have been the plug-in radiator heater in the room. Thing was, he couldn’t see why, because the heater seemed to work fine with no fuse-blowing issues when he plugged it in.

“What,” I shouted at the universe, “have I done? I’m sorry, whatever it is; I’m sorry! I’m really, really sorry!”

I ended up telling the man in my local Asian food shop about it all.

“Dear God,” he said quietly. He, I felt, was the first person I felt, who took the thing seriously. After some thought he suggested that I purchase a sage smudge-stick for a couple of euro. Then to go home, open all the windows, light the stick ‘til it smouldered and carry it around the house bringing aromatic smoke everywhere. I bought two sticks. But when I got home I felt a bit silly about it and put them away in a cupboard.

Scientists have studied the reason why bad things come in threes. They found that they actually don’t. Apparently humans look for patterns in random data in a way to impose order on disorder. This tendency, apophenia, was first described by the German psychologist and neuroscientist Klaus Conrad 1958. Klaus was studying people suffering the onset of schizophrenia. He believed they experienced delusion as a sort of revelation. Great, I thought. There’s also a thing called confirmation bias. This is another flaw in our perception as humans. We tend to essentially cherry-pick information that confirms our beliefs while conveniently overlooking the examples that don’t.

In reality, bad things happen all the time, but because of triaphilia, apophenia and confirmation bias, not to mention our own individual cultural biases, it seems that we humans just have a tendency to group bad things in threes.

None of this reasoning helped me at all. In the end, I opened all the windows in the house, lit the smudge stick, which was like a bunch of dried leaves tied with string, let it smoulder, and walked around bringing smoke to every corner.

I may be suffering from triaphilia, apophenia and confirmation bias, not to mention potentially undiagnosed schizophrenia, and the avalanche of minor crises may well all be a figment of my own delusions, but not a thing has gone wrong since I used that smudge-stick. Fingers crossed.

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