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What do we do with a horrible year?

My girlfriend swears that bad things run in threes.  If she has two minor tragedies she expects that third one like a blow to the head.  But passing the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina made me wonder:  what happens when the string of bads just keeps coming—spiral deployments, serious illness, chronic loneliness, separation, family troubles?  What happens when we military families get a whole year made up of one bad thing after another?

When this happened to Queen Elizabeth II in 1992, she called it her “annus horribilious”—her horrible year.  That was the year the marriages of both of her sons unraveled and Windsor Castle burned.  In her Christmas message, the queen said didn’t think she would be looking back on ‘92 with “undiluted pleasure.’

At the time, I wasn’t that interested.  Once I was knee deep in my own bad year, I was dying to know how she managed.  Like Queen Victoria before her, did she just close her eyes and think of England?

I gave that a try.  Sometimes it worked.  Often it didn’t.  I used to close my eyes and think of how things used to be before we evacuated for the Hurricane Katrina, before our son was diagnosed with autism, before this year of separation.  Over and over I told myself, “All is well and all was well and all will be well again.”

Because I read that is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to examine the evidence that tells us that all will be well again and act on that. 

Just after the hurricane, I read that most major events lose their impact on our happiness within three short months.  That does not include the death of a child or a spouse—ask any military widow or grieving parent.  Those losses take years to assimilate, if ever.

But human beings start getting over major life events like natural disasters remarkably quickly.  That stunned me.  Big things ought to take longer.  But psychologists who have studied the phenomenon have found that our happiness is based more on our genes than our circumstances. 

We have a natural level of happiness that our minds naturally seek.  That is why lottery winners go back to their old troubles in a very short time.  Paraplegics describe their lives as just about as happy as anyone else’s life within a few years of their accident.  The worry of last year’s deployment fades and sputters in the light of the next one.

During this year I have had plenty of days of despair when my kids were screaming and my mom was crying and Brad and I were looking down the throat of $400,000 worth of hurricane debt.  I closed my eyes then and thought of England.  I clung to the idea that because things had been good before they would go back to being good again.

They have.  I’m surprised to be saying that, but we’re pretty much back to normal.  I hope most of the people affected by the hurricanes last year can say the same.  My heart goes out to those who cannot.

So I make that note for future reference.  Not every bad event will take us down for the count.  We can suffer hurricanes and wars and floods and separation and diseases and terrorist attacks.  We can act on these circumstances, angling for the best outcome.  Sometimes it is awfully good to know that whatever happens, something, somewhere, is churning away in the murky waters of our gene pool trying to bring back the normal. 

That pleasant, glorious, remarkable, ever-so-welcome normal. 

(A 19-year military spouse, Jacey Eckhart is a syndicated columnist with and the author of The Homefront Club (Naval Institute Press 2004).)

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