The Third Thing

This is just a game.

A word game.

Do not take it too seriously; it is not profound.

But it hinges on a pattern I have noticed in the way we think about things.

It has long been noted that humans have a tendency to create pairs of things: We tend to understand the world in opposites — up, down; good, evil; male, female. Asian philosophies talk about yin and yang arising from the void.

And our sense of this is so strong that we actually think of a number of casual pairs as opposites, especially when we are children. It seems oddly appropriate that chocolate and vanilla are understood as opposites, or salt and pepper.

It is a tenet of many of those Eastern philosophies that the dualities are merely illusion. And some Western philosophers have recognized that most, if not all the opposites we commonly accept are merely linguistic tricks.

After all, one end of the cigar is lit, the other is where we draw smoke. We call the two ends opposites, but there is only one cigar.

Pairs, dualities, opposites. They are natural pathways through the neurons of our brains, the binary system of computers, the underpinnings of our mythologies.

But then, there’s the “third thing.”

That is, as the pairs of opposites arise from the void, they are often accompanied by a third thing, lesser and not thought of as participating in the dualities, but naturally occurring with them nevertheless.

So that, if we think of General Motors and Ford as being in opposition, Chrysler sits next to them as the “third thing.”

When we oppose Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as almost all boys did when they both had television shows in the ’50s — choosing to prefer Roy to Gene or vice versa — there was always Hopalong Cassidy as the third thing.

Even with vanilla and chocolate: You cannot make a Neapolitan without the third thing: Strawberry.

Or salt and pepper, which share their table space with the sugar bowl.

The pairs must feel like they are complete in themselves, and then the third thing must appear as naturally as a baby nine months after a wedding.

The third thing has to have a “bingo” feeling when you think of it.

Like when we oppose Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and then, bingo, we remember Harold Lloyd.

Or when we think of wines divided into red and white, but then bingo, recall the rose, or what is now called a “blush” wine.

It has to seem natural.

Sometimes, a pair doesn’t have a clear third thing. We pair off hamburgers and hot dogs, for instance, but what is the single third thing? Pizza? Tacos? There are too many contenders.

The game is to find your own pairs of opposites, and their “third thing.”

Play it on long drives instead of counting cows or linking geographical names by their first and last letters.

Want to play? It’s easy. Think of something we often cast as “opposites” – dog and cat, win and lose, North Pole and South Pole – and then search for the “bingo” your brain kicks out as the tagalong third: mouse, tie, the Equator.

I’d be interested in your discoveries. Send your pairs of opposites and your “third thing” to

Here are some of the trios that come to mind:

Coke – Pepsi – RC Cola

The Beatles – The Rolling Stones – The Who

Ketchup – Mustard – Mayonnaise

Tea – Coffee – Hot Chocolate

Freud – Jung – Adler

Superman – Batman – Spiderman

Hitler – Mussolini – Franco

New York – LA – Chicago

Haydn – Mozart – Boccherini

Harvard – Yale – Princeton

Theravada – Mahayana – Zen

AP – UPI – Reuters

Frankenstein – Dracula – Wolfman

“Time” – “Newsweek” – “US News and World Report”

Lions – Tigers – Bears

Old Testament – New Testament – Apocrypha

The Sun – The Moon – The Stars

McDonald’s – Burger King – Hardees

Confucius – Lao Tse – Mencius

The Good – The Bad – The Ugly

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