Four Is the Loneliest Number

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 amusing if there were nine, because it would be a perfect example of the “rule of three” to have three sets of three things in a list of the possible definitions of the phrase; it is comic to have 10 instead.

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 psychology, and thus Western history, triads dominate. (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, triplets and trios populate mythology and fiction, Schubert used triplets in his melodies. The sentence I just typed has three example-clauses. Trios make a sturdy, logical structure.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. My writing is populated with lists of three examples or three incidents or three individuals. Or three things and a joke undercutting the importance of those three 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 joke set-ups that are not intended to be jokes.)

In real life, a place I sometimes visit, I dislike threes. They may make a satisfying logical structure, but I find myself awaiting the fourth item to make two complete pairs. A square. I have a touch, a smidge, of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and when I was anxious, 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. If I brushed against the side of a locker in high school, I needed to repeat the action on the other side; it 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.

It appears to have relaxed as I have relaxed, 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 is limited. My experience with it is as a minor personality quirk, so minor that it may have gone unnoticed by the people closest to me. It 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!)

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.

I still dislike threes, triads, triangles, and triples though.

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This first appeared in February 2015.

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