The Wikipedia disambiguation page for the commonplace partial phrase “rule of three” lists nine items. Actually it lists 10, the tenth not being an example of the concept of the rule of three in day-to-day life but the title of a play; it may have been added by an editor simply to amuse himself or herself. (It was not me.)
It would be a perfect example of the rule of three to have three sets of three things make up the possible definitions of the phrase; it is comic to have 10 instead. So, why three wishes? Why do we knock on wood three times for good luck? (Does anyone knock for bad luck? There are a lot of people on our planet and even more have existed and departed; someone must have.)
The three sets of examples (plus one) of the rule of three as given in the Wikipedia entry are as follows: “Rule of three (C++ programming), a rule of thumb about class method definitions; Rule of three (computer programming), a rule of thumb about code refactoring; Rule of three (mathematics), a computation method in mathematics; Rule of three (medicinal chemistry), a rule of thumb for lead-like compounds; Rule of three (statistics), for calculating a confidence limit when no events have been observed; Rule of three (aviation), a rule of descent in aviation; Rule of three (economics), a rule of thumb about major competitors in a free market; Rule of Three (Wicca), a tenet of Wicca; Rule of three (writing), a principle of writing; and Rule of Three, a series of one-act plays by Agatha Christie.”
In Western history, and thus Western psychology, triads dominate. Three rules. (Perhaps this is a global phenomenon, but I do not know.) Once is an event, twice is a repeat (or a coincidence), and thrice is a pattern; thus our ever-busy pattern-seeking brains love threes.
After two, we anticipate the third thing and are either surprised or satisfied by its appearance or non-appearance. The Christian faith has an important triad (you-know who, you-know-who, and You-Know-Who), triplets and trios populate mythology and fiction, Schubert used triplets in his melodies. The sentence I just typed has three examples.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. My own writing is populated with lists of three examples or three incidents or three individuals. Or two things and a joke undercutting the importance of those first two things. Even my Serious Columns™ are structured like a joke: example, example, third example that provides a new perspective. Some of my most heart-felt sentences are basically punchlines to set-ups; they have the structure and rhythm of a joke without being a joke at all.
Trios make a sturdy, logical structure. Some scholars of popular myths postulate that we in the Western world knock on wood three times for good luck in a half-conscious reference to the Cross (wood) and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Others remind us that there is a similar but not identical habit-action in Judaism and also in Islam. It may not be religious in origin at all.
Same with three wishes granted by an exotic entity. In the Aarne–Thompson index of folklore and folktales, “Foolish Wishes” is category 750A. Nine stories—three sets of three!—are cataloged in that category, one from the Sanskrit work The Panchatantra and the rest from Western folktales.
In the real world, a place I sometimes visit, I personally dislike threes, however. They may make a satisfying and sturdy logical structure, but I always find myself awaiting the fourth item to make two complete pairs. A square. The other perfect shape, like my non-hip personality.
I have a touch, a smidge, a spasmodic case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and whenever I felt anxious growing up—a condition in which I spent the first 40 years of my life—I used to arrange things in squares, or I would tap one side of an object, balance it with a tap on the other side, and then repeat the two sides. Thus, four touches and a square. If I brushed against the side of a locker in high school, I needed to repeat the action on the other side; this must have made me a sight on crowded cafeteria lines. It always felt like I needed to turn incidental contacts into a perfect, balanced-out, four contacts.
This appears to have relaxed as I have relaxed in life, but not completely. I know that OCD does not need anxiousness for a person to feel the need to do something because of it. My experience with it is as a minor personality quirk, so minor that it may have gone unnoticed by the people closest to me, family and friends. My OCD has affected my life neither positively nor negatively. Which may be why it is mostly gone. (After writing about it here, it most certainly won’t be gone tonight. Tap, tap, tap … tap! down my hallway.)
It is good that it is gone now, since I am always leaning on a walking stick on my right side or banging into random things as I walk. As I have lost some balance in real life I have lost the need to pursue it in fruitless assertions of perfect psychological balance. The need to tap my arms surreptitiously because someone brushed past me in Starbucks, for instance.
I still dislike threes—triads, triangles, and triples—though.
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This is a re-write of a piece from February.
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I always taught my students that once could be a fluke, twice a random coincident, thrice likely useful evidence. Perhaps it’s also Pythagorean arcana. I think the REAL magic of three is that a three-legged stool will not wobble but a four-legged stool might.
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I always found mythology to be populated with twos — Remus and Romulus, God and the Devil, Good and Evil, Light v. Dark, Me and my evil twin Skippy, blah blah blah… so there goes the theory of three. I guess it’s all in what we look for.
Also, the habit of knocking on wood or touching would isn’t supposed to bring good luck but to drive away bad luck. For example, most people will say “Let’s hope this good thing happens. Knock on wood” and they’ll knock (or touch) wood. The original idea was that expressing the hope that this good thing might happen out loud was enough to jinx it, so you should knock wood (which was considered holy) to drive any bad spirits away.
Superstitions were something that interested me in a, “why in the world do we do this weird thing?” kind of way.
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Well, you know what they say: two’s company; three’s a crowd. But third time’s the charm so maybe we should stick with those three’s?
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