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?”
“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.
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