can telephones

The ‘Three What’ Rule

There’s a reason they are called Hearing Aids, not Hearing Healers. Sure, I hear so much more sound and music than I would without battery powered hearing instruments. And everyday I am grateful for better hearing. However, I am still hearing impaired, even when amplified. Clear words are still elusive if conditions are not perfect. Conditions are rarely perfect. And this is frustrating for me and anyone around me.

As a consequence, there is an unspoken rule between us, you and me. Even though you probably aren’t even aware, you have an internal quota of three “whats” per person per conversation. It’s the Three What Rule. “Whats” are a hearing impaired person’s most valuable conversational commodity. We have to use them sparingly. On average, I get three consecutive whats before total aggravation on the part of the speaker. After three, a choice has to be made. Consider this scene, a classroom in Roosevelt Elementary School, in my hometown:


(middle-aged, facing the chalkboard)

“Kelley what is the kmfonclr of righnirlms?”



(grade-schooler, sitting in a desk, looks up from her book.)




(still facing the board, with a hint of impatience)

“What is the kmdornkg of fdmilrn?”



(starting to feel nervous)




(speaks loudly in an aggravated tone while leaning down to pick up a piece of paper)

“What is the knoewlkd of slknf?”



(can’t see the teacher’s mouth, unable to lip-read)

“I’m sorry. What?”



(completely exasperated)

“Kelley. For pete’s sake, are you listening?!”

No matter how nice or long-suffering your friends are, for a hearing impaired person, three whats is the limit. On the other side of the third what is a raised angry voice or passive punishment. After the third what, especially from mumbling strangers, comes rolled eyes and looks of disdain or impatience. Before the fourth what comes, “What is wrong with you?” “Aren’t you listening?” or worse, the cut off, the conversational hang up where topics are changed and eye contact is lost.

As a general rule, except maybe in cases of conversations with people who speak a different language, there is no fourth what. The fourth what is the Bermuda Triangle, the Black Hole of conversations. Nobody ever goes there and comes back to talk about it.

I subconsciously measure my whats every day like calories. At home I use my whats rather freely and land myself on the third what in various conversations with my family throughout a day. But in other settings, I am more frugal. It’s all Cost vs. Benefit. The cost of a request to repeat isn’t usually worth the benefit of a joke or off-handed comment. But if a speaker has non-verbals which indicate a serious conversation, it’s probably worth cashing in on a what. In particularly loud settings or with especially quiet-spoken people, it’s easy to use up the three whats right off the bat. At that point it becomes imperative to explain my deficit. “I am sorry, I can’t hear you very well, could you speak up a bit?” Which often means, the person speaking will speak up for about 5 paragraphs and resume a quiet default. Unless it’s an extremely important conversation, I will usually quit asking for clarification and start pretending. I smile and nod and let others do the talking.

It’s hard to constantly admit you just don’t get what everybody else gets, for whatever reason. So, as impaired people, we guess. We look to others for cues. We decide not to invest in half-spoken conversations. We laugh at unheard jokes simply because everyone else is laughing. We pretend. We hide. We forfeit certain content of relationship because we fear the consequences of asking for help one more time.

The Root

Over time, my what-counting tendencies shaped the way I relate to people. The habit became a small reflecting part of a larger mirror. The third what was one piece of a larger belief that I didn’t measure up. For a lot of years, my only hope for meaningful relationship was based on my ability to perform well, to compensate and hide my impairments. Because, in a million other ways, I decided that there is a limit on how much can be asked of others, or even, of God, before inevitable negative relational consequence.

At the bottom of that fear, is an insidious and rooted correlation between performance and intimacy. If I believe my God or people will only love me if I perform well, there are icy relational implications. These are the roots of shame — insidious, half-true deep-reaching tendrils of false stability.

Maybe you relate in ways besides hearing issues. Maybe you have your own hidden impairments. When we choose to hide our impairments we suffer. When we choose to live in secret fear of rejection, we forfeit the deeper things of relationship.

Shame is the deceitful enemy of intimacy. It locks us in prison and shuts us out of life-giving conversation. Shame throws up barriers and puts on masks. And it’s always wrapped like a velvet choke collar around our most broken parts, whispering half-truths that make perfect sense at the time.

“Don’t rock the boat. This is better left unsaid.”
“There’s a limit to what people can stand.”
“You’ve used up your quota. Just smile and pretend.”
“Measure the risk and be afraid of the outcome.”
“Withdraw. Create distance. Avoid.”

In the end it’s all the same message: “Choose the safe prison over vulnerable freedom.”

Claiming the Fourth

In some ways, I was wrong about the third what. Yes, the Three What Rule is still a standing norm in social settings. And yes, I generally use my whats sparingly. But the third what shouldn’t be avoided because of shame.

I’ve decided to embrace the daily possibility of a fourth what. Why? Because relationship is based on more than my ability to avoid disruption. Because I am mostly ok with being flawed, the fourth what is now my opportunity to admit I am not perfect. In life’s bigger picture, it is my opportunity to offer the honest mess and beauty of living outside prison doors.

I still wear hearing aids, but I have been healed in other ways.  I’ve been rescued from a prison of shame. And that’s another long story for another time about my marriage, and church, and my relationship with Jesus. But for now I’ll just say, I believe in my gut that we don’t have a quota of ‘whats’ with God. Maybe you don’t agree, and that’s ok. But my experience has led me to believe that there is divine repetition unconditional, intimate, available at all times.

The noise of shame creates distance and barriers. But we can say, ‘I’m sorry could you repeat that” as many times as necessary and he repeats, patiently, again and again.

God echoes across time.  His redemptive messages whisper in morning skies, in sacred words, in music, in children’s artwork, in worship, in sacraments and in the sacrifices of everyday vulnerability. In unexpected ways, he repeats infinitely, because he desires to unlock the inmost prisons of our hearts.

In the quiet truth of our deepest impairments, I believe he loves. When we are deaf, when we hear, when we listen, even when we don’t … he loves, anyway and always.

He is the God of the fourth what.




Can Telephones by bourndesign, on Flickr

12 thoughts on “The God of the Fourth What

  1. kathy mozdren

    “In the quiet truth of our deepest impairments, He loves….He is God of the fourth what.” I am moved. In this moment I have no words. Thank you for sharing your truth.


  2. Carol

    Once again, you spoke such deep truth. Several things you said stand out as significantly important: \”Maybe you relate in ways besides hearing issues. Maybe you have your own hidden impairments. When we choose to hide our impairments we suffer. When we choose to live in secret fear of rejection, we forfeit the deeper things of relationship.\” I have lots of impairments, some have been hidden, some I carry around in 50 lb. increments that I would like to hide, but can\’t. I am actively working on living in that free place you\’re talking about and not allowing myself to be cloaked in shame any longer. What a journey that is. The flip side, and where I lived for too long was medicating the hurt so I could avoid the disruption. That didn\’t work because eventually, there aren\’t enough prescription drugs, or alcohol or enough food to sooth the pain. The great part is that God is in the disruption. He\’s cheering me on as I go towards Him and my husband. He\’s coming alongside me as I choose to enter into the broken places and pain. \”In the quiet truth of our deepest impairments, I believe he loves. When we are deaf, when we hear, when we listen, even when we don’t … he loves, anyway and always.\” What amazing truth and grace that is.


    1. Kelley J Leigh Post author

      Carol you just played this whole scenario out in such an honest an vulnerable way … YES to the ways we hide and self-medicate in so many ways. And yes, in the end there is never enough to soothe the pain apart from God. So beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing this, friend.


  3. sibbi

    I had never thought of the \”3 what rule\”. I wonder if it is related to that misused \”3 strikes, you\’re out!\” rule. Surprisingly enough, I am finding the need for a “4th what” more than I want to admit. I am finding that I need to face my family members so I can \”hear\” them. I chased a child across the living room last night, trying to hear what he was saying and when I got to him, I took his arm so I could turn him toward me and I asked \”what\” again. He was gracious enough to answer me! I know it was more than the 3rd what! It was one of those off-handed comments made in passing, but those are the comments I really want to hear. Those are the comments that tell me what someone is thinking, who they are at that moment, or what is really going on in their head. I am rather disturbed to think at this moment how often I am frustrated after the 1st what! What do you mean you didn\’t hear me; what I have to say is ALWAYS important! You should have heard me the 1st time! And then I find I repeat myself 3 times, even when they did hear me the 1st time. Who do I think I am?!! I love Adina\’s comment that God loves to hear us ask again. How amazing is that concept?! He wants relationship and shows us how over and over. He repeats things for us. He was there for His people EVERY time they needed or wanted Him no matter how often or for how long they had not been listening. He already knows what I am thinking; AND He wants to hear from me again and again! \”Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…\” My challenge …more \”what\’s\” in my life! less talk and much more listening, heart and soul listening! Lord, show me how!!!


    1. Kelley J Leigh Post author

      Oh my, SIbbi. So much to think about here … And yes I agree about Adina’s comment, too! I like this part of what you said, “My challenge …more \”what\’s\” in my life! less talk and much more listening, heart and soul listening!” So be it! Love when you share your responses, SIbbi.


  4. adina

    I love the idea that God doesn’t get irritated when we ask AGAIN. In fact, He DELIGHTS when we ask. When we make ourselves small against His enormity. When we humble ourselves. And ask again. And again. And again. Always needy of Him. Ask again. Love it.


    1. Kelley J Leigh Post author

      Yes. Totally agree with you here (and so does Sibbi). So much mercy and patience in the repetition on God’s part, and so much permissible neediness on our part. Thnx, Adina.


  5. Kristine D'Ambrosio

    To be fully known and still deeply loved….the most desired and feared thing of all .We are so performance based that taking hold of the promises of God in Christ is difficult. We live in a world where it is so easy to wear a mask and to edit ourselves. We cut off or hide our bad fruit While the tap root of shame continues to grow instead of desiring intimacy with the One who is Love and brings healing. C.S Lewis said we a “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” It is not satisfying to the soul to feel like you never measure up! Oh to stop hiding our disabilities and wounds . That we would hear and listen to that voice that says I fully know you..I have loved you with an everlasting love when you were ,and are at your worst. To ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see and know the Love of God for us in our most dark and broken place. To focus on His perfection not on our shortcomings and failures. There is so much more. First we have to make peace with our disabilities and shortcomings ( hard ,hard did I say hard? ) and hand them to God to walk in this confidence …I am fully known and loved ..I am free to not be perfect.
    Thank you Kelley ..I struggling in this area physically and spiritually and need constant renewing of the mind and spirit!


    1. Kelley J Leigh Post author

      Kristine. I love that C.S. Lewis quote. “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” So true. It is quite the process to live in a way that is fully free to be imperfect and perfectly loved. Happy to be in good company with you as we learn to walk in this confidence. Sure takes practice, doesn’t it? I SO appreciate your thoughtful responses here. You keep me thinking …


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge