"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

A Strange Loop

Captive and Captor

We are all hostages. We are restrained, imprisoned, bound, under surveillance, and subject to the will and whim of our captor; judged, criticized, rewarded, praised, tempted, punished, cajoled, encouraged, assured, castigated, condemned. Our captor’s voice is our own inner voice, sometimes a cacophonous chorus of discordant voices, that arise, unbidden, from the depths of our being. We are hostage to ourselves.

The one constant companion in our life’s journey is ourselves. This is the most powerful, intimate, passionate, and important relationship that accompanies us till our last breath. We cannot escape it, except temporally though sleep, drugs, passionate endeavors, or other mind-bending practices.

We each have our own unique set of reoccurring themes and rhythms in this chorus of voices derived from temperament, early life experiences, cultural and historical contexts, intimate relationships, that which is shouted and whispered to us at various points throughout our lives by various notable personages, traumas and travails, and who knows what else. Our lives are shaped by this chorus. While we are captors, we are also are aware that we are hostages. Hostage and captor—we are both, and our awareness of this also makes us hostage negotiator. We are a strange loop; not a single I, not a unitary self, but a hierarchical looping of self-referring dynamic I’s—a tangle of voices, voices about voices. . . about voices.1 Here is an example of the complexity of this relationship: “I” write about “my” experience of noting common themes that arise from the darkness of “my” being that imprison “me” and “I” find this quite amusing, baffling, and remarkable. Just who am “I”? And who is asking?? What a confusing “I” are we!2

Psychotherapy Loops

Psychotherapy, in its various forms, offers navigational guides for understanding ourselves and gaining some leverage to change strands of our strange loop. Psychotherapy provides a framework that names and maps the working of our inner self, paying particular attention to the voices of the “captor” who has imprisoned “us” and offering strategies to the “negotiator”.3

So, for example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tells us that the “captor” voices carry irrational and self-destructive statements that must be identified, challenged, and replaced with more rational, adaptive ones (by the “negotiator”). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) instructs that these voices are simply a stream of ideas that have power only if we (the “captive”) attend to and act on them; instead, we should simply accept, note, and let them pass without being “hooked” by them. Psychoanalysis identifies these voices as the eruption of id impulses that must be rooted out, their symbolic meaning divined and transmuted to adaptive responses by our ego. Other therapies follow a similar pattern using different models—identifying features of the captor (e.g. irrational statements; idea stream; id impulses), and offering strategies for the negotiator to free the captive. Each model configures a unique “reality” of our interiority, which can be confusing, especially as arguments abound among proponents of the models, thus revealing the provisional nature of our understanding of ourselves.

This strange loop exemplifies the modern idea of the self; a self-contained interiority where all the voices are within us. The forces in the external world are subject to their own laws and principles and do not intrude or influence the inner sanctity of the self. We perceive the external world from the portals of the citadel of our solitary self. This idea of a self is of recent origins, historically, arising hand-in-glove with the rise of modern secular culture in the West.4 It is a manifestation of a culture whose governing principals, political structures, economic policies, communal practices, and basis for truth presume independent individuals, each possessing inalienable rights, making rational decisions based on self-interest, and guided by the methods, reasoning, and findings of science.

Inspirited Cosmos

Most cultures and religions throughout most of human history, in contrast, have presumed we dwell in a world infused with magical and supernatural powers, populated by hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful, and inexplicable spirits. In this inspirited world, no clear boundaries divide our phenomenological experience and these forces let loose upon the earth. Thoughts can be experienced as the voice of gods, goblins, ghouls, genies, demons, angels, saints, sirens, fairies, ancestors, ghosts, witches, wizards, or spirits. Furthermore, omens, amulets, holy water, and sacred relics radiate influence that, unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will, compel us to act.

The shear range and number of presumed voices and supernatural powers that have been believed by various religions and cultures is staggering. Are we experiencing the voice of God? Satan? Ghosts? Ancestors? Hallucinations? Naming and understanding our experience encompasses an entire cosmology, a communal history of sanctioned practices and foundational beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.5

Each of us is inseparably bound to our communal “we.” It is through “we” that we tether our body and being to a larger system of meanings, and also how, individually, we unite to form a community that embodies its meanings.6 “I” and “we” form two sides of the same coin. This is also so for the citadel of the modern self, which is constituted from modern secular culture. This looping influence between “I” and “we” is another strand in the strange loop that is us.7

These looping paradoxes are the curse and the gift of a self-reflective species that dwells within a symbolically created universe that has great power and scope of apprehension, but also engenders paradox, contradiction, confusion, and disagreement. It is thus that we bewildered primates gain some measure of order and stability.8

Adrift

Much is at stake for the individual and for the community in how our phenomenological experience is understood. Experiences that defy communal beliefs, violate taboos, or threaten the social order can have dire consequences. While each communal cosmology may offer a reassuring sense of order and stability, the aggregate and bizarre differences among them, sometimes resulting in armed conflict and mass deaths(!), highlights our profound lack of understanding of ourselves and the provisional nature of our endeavors to do so.

The mortal importance we give them is, perhaps, precisely because alternatives are possible. We are adrift in a sea of uncertainty—we are a strange loop in a strange and uncanny cosmos.

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  1. The term “strange loop” is taken from Douglas Hofstadter’s book, “I am a Strange Loop”. It is also the title of a disturbing, riveting, and profound Tony Award winning Broadway play, “A Strange Loop”, that draws on Hofstadter’s strange loop, and is the source of the title of this post.
  2. See Play with Your Digits
  3. I am very aware that offering a model of captive-captor-negotiator is yet another attempt to name and organize our strange loop. It is impossible to discuss this without entering a hall of mirrors; we can never escape to a vantage outside and independent of our strange loop.
  4. See Soul to Self: Trial of Rats and Soul to Self 2: Cosmic Facts & Personal Authority.
  5. We live in a pluralistic society where multiple interpretative cosmologies can coexist, not only in the culture but also within the same person. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540483/.
  6. The enmeshment of “I” and “we” is tragically exposed when there is a single, sole survivor of cultural linguist group; an entire cosmology lives, and dies, with them.
  7. This strange loop explanation, derived from the modern idea of self, incorporates the looping effects of the explanatory cosmology that it, itself, is a part of. Again, we cannot escape ourselves to describe ourselves.
  8. See Play with Your Digits and Abracadabra!

4 Comments

  1. shawn

    Wow- this might be my favorite December Song yet! I must admit my hostage negotiator is exhausted and starting to smoke too many cigarettes.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Shawn, I am glad you liked it.
      And you are right, the hostage negotiator is usually overworked, exhausted, and prone to smoking too much and in need of a. . . therapist, who of course will be stressed out, and in need of… It never ends…or always ends in someone smoking too much. We are trapped with ourselves, all of them.

  2. Gary Morse

    Thank you, Brian, for your well-written and very thoughtful blog post. It is enlightening to read your thoughts about an aspect of experience that is so close and yet often so mysterious. it also made me think about how in meditation we can sometimes witness, and even dive beyond, various levels of the self.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Gary. And the “we” that dives beyond is also part of the very strange loop.

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