Three is a very important number in both big and little ways, running throughout our history and culture. We have the three little pigs who outwit the wicked wolf, the three ships of Christopher Columbus, the three ghosts that appear to Scrooge, the Three Wise Men, Musketeers and Stooges, and the three books that comprise the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On a spiritual level, in my faith, Catholicism, the Trinity is of central and utmost importance. In a deeply human sense, the addition of a child to a couple – “baby makes three” – creates a new form of family and fulfillment.
Yet there are less amusing and less empowering aspects associated with the number three. It is often said that when three children play together, two of them inevitably seem to bond, and the third feels left out. We have expressions for when a person feels that he or she is not needed or wanted – “three’s a crowd” and “a third wheel.” No one wants to feel like a third wheel – it’s very disempowering and just downright uncomfortable.
I experienced this discomfort myself while on a trip to India last year. I went with my friend Jack Newton, the owner of the fishing camp in Canada that we go to every summer. He is a lifelong devoted fisherman, so when we planned the trip, we knew it had to include fishing. On the trip, we spent three days in the north of India, fishing in the cold clear rivers that run down from the Himalayas. There lives a fabled fish, the golden mahseer. Rudyard Kipling wrote of the beauty, strength and tenacity of the mahseer.
We had an Indian guide, experienced in fishing for the mahseer, to help us. He and Jack immediately hit it off, as two experienced fisherman. Now I like fishing, but I don’t do it often and am a real amateur. So I began to feel left out, as though I wasn’t good enough. Those old feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that seem to lurk just below the surface emerged. I felt that I was the third wheel.
I think that Jack sensed this, and he and the guide took particular pains to make sure that I caught a mahseer.And I did catch a mahseer; not a big one, but it was every bit as beautiful and tenacious as Kipling said it was.
Afterward, I reflected on the experience. I recalled something I heard a wise person share with an audience years ago. He said that he, like everyone else, experienced feelings of fear, guilt, anger and self-doubt. “But,” he said, “I don’t water them.” I learned from him that it is not very productive to brood about something, which only makes it worse. So I didn’t wallow in my feelings of being left out, and ended up having a fine time fishing in India.
In the wonderfully wise piece of writing, the Desiderata, the author says, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
I understand the wisdom of that advice. It’s a sort of cheap win to look at those who can do less than you can do, and feel proud and superior. And it sure is not very productive to look at those who excel at something and then to discount oneself for not being as good as they are.
I came to see that there are fishermen who are better than me, and fishermen who are worse. It doesn’t help to compare myself to either group. I guess I just have to strive to be the best fisherman – and person – that I can be.