“I’ve tried pushing him. I’ve tried accepting him as he is. The only thing I haven’t tried is being consistent.”
Remember an old folk tune called “There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza”? It’s a dialogue with lots of repeated lines, designed, like “99 Bottles of Beer,” to sound tedious — tedious both to the listener and to the two parties in the dialogue, even though they stay patient, calling each other “dear” throughout. Here it is, abridged:
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza.
Then fix it, dear Henry.
With what shall I fix it, dear Liza?
With a straw, dear Henry.
But the straw is too long, dear Liza.
Then cut it, dear Henry.
With what shall I cut it, dear Liza?
With an axe, dear Henry.
The axe is too dull, dear Liza.
Then sharpen it, dear Henry.
With what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza?
With a stone, dear Henry.
The stone is too dry, dear Liza.
Then wet it, dear Henry.
With what shall I wet it, dear Liza?
With water, dear Henry.
How shall I get it, dear Liza?
In the bucket, dear Henry.
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza.
Then fix it, dear Henry. . . “
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
In systems science, such patterns are called infinite loops. They can be simple, like reciprocating engines, where thing A causes thing B, causing thing A. For example:
He’s being a pain again, I’ve got to force him to stop it already. . .
I can’t force him. I’m being too pushy. I’ve got to just accept him as he is. . .
I can’t just accept this. I’m indulging him. He’s such a pain, I’ve got to push him to stop it already. . .
This isn’t right. I’m being too pushy . . .
Or infinite loops can be extended, like the song about the hole in the bucket. The extended ones are particularly interesting, because the longer it takes to make a full cycle, the less likely we are to notice that it is a loop.
Infinite loops can arise in relationships, too:
Jill: You don’t pay enough attention to me. Stop taking me for granted.
Jack: You’re right. From now on, I’ll pay more attention to you. Let’s do something together now.
Jill: Great. Problem solved. Thank you.
Jack: (The pressure’s off. Now I can get back to my priorities.)
Jill: Hey, you don’t pay enough attention to me.
Jack: You’re right. From now on, I’ll pay more attention to you. Let’s do something together now.
We tend to think of habits of thought as static, but quite often they’re infinite loops, standing patterns caused by oscillations, cycles in which we visit one station after another, not noticing the loop, because we’re constantly in motion, making seeming progress even though the progress is only toward the beginning again and again. Suspecting that you’re stuck in a loop can give rise to a secondary loop about whether the looping needs to be stopped:
Jack: This is ridiculous. I’m in a rut. I’m feeling exactly the way I felt two weeks ago.
Jill: You’re not in a rut. Last week, you felt completely different about this.
Jack: I guess you’re right. I am making progress. I guess I’m OK.
Jill: That’s right; you’re in a groove, and even if you’re cycling through old feelings, that doesn’t mean you’re not learning each time you go around.
Jack: But, no, come to think of it, I’m not learning. Nothing changes. I feel exactly as I did before. Really, this is a rut, not a groove.
Jill: How can you say that? You’re in constant motion, and, besides, life is full of cycles. Your moods are like the seasons, the cycles of death and rebirth. That doesn’t mean they’re bad.
Jack: You’re right. Maybe I’m fine â€¦
Just as not all habits are bad, not all infinite loops are, either. We thrive on many of them. Breathing in and out is an infinite loop. All engines and motors are, too. Cycles of fashion are as well, and their benefits depend largely on our capacity to forget that they’re loops. Twenty-five years later, bell-bottoms are exciting precisely because we forgot that we grew tired of them back in the late seventies.
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But is repeating it always a bad thing? When is an infinite loop a rut, and when is it a groove? When is it one damn thing after another, and, worse, always the same damn things, and when is it how we sustain ourselves?
Some loops are grooves because they force us to stick with a question long enough to give it some thought. Many of our most popular and resonant personal admonishments, such as, “To be a better person, accept yourself the way you are,” “Resolve to always be flexible,” and “Don’t be negative,” are paradoxical. As static statements independent of time, they’re irresolvable. They defy logic, sounding like hypocritical nonsense. But if you treat any of them as the two horns of a dilemma — try to change yourself versus accept yourself; be discerning versus be accepting — and you bounce between the two horns over time, you get a standing wave pattern, an infinite loop:
I’m too uptight. I’ve got to strive to be better. . .
No, wait, now I’m getting too uptight about getting better. I should accept myself the way I am. . .
No, wait, now I realize the way I am is too uptight. I’ve got to strive to be better. . .
Looping like this can serve us well for a time, not because the loop is resolvable within its own constraints, but because it forces us to become familiar with a fundamental dilemma. Stewing in a cyclical soup, steeping stirred to and fro, cooking in the crucible, you gain insights you wouldn’t get if you hadn’t fallen into it. Steep before you leap.
For example, is self-acceptance good, or bad? You may loop for a while, saying, “Bad. . . no, good. . . no, bad. . . no, good,” but then, at some point, you say, “Wait. I’ve been around this cycle long enough, and dwelling in it, I’ve now learned that the answer must lie outside the cycle. It depends on context. It’s good to be self-accepting about the things I cannot, and need not, change. It’s bad to be self-accepting about the things I can, and need to, change.”
Big insight, but how new is it, really? If you ask someone who has never fallen into that soul-searching loop, he or she would think it’s a dumb question: “What’s the big deal? Of course you should beat yourself up when you do bad things and be nice to yourself when you do smart ones.”
So, is all your soul-search looping for nothing? Not really. A great many philosophers, from Rousseau to Heidegger to Ram Dass, have argued that the point of all the hard, soul-searching work is to go out into the big question but then return to the small ones of everyday life with a new appreciation. What new appreciation? I suspect that those who have fallen into the big questions and then come back to the commonsense solutions would be in some way inoculated against falling into the old loop again. That is, the person with naive common sense could be tipped into the rut in ways the person who has been in the rut couldn’t.
Learning from loops is, therefore, a two-step process: falling in, then eventually bounding out. For the first step, we have people who promote those paradoxical admonishments, teachers who extol the virtues of half-truths, such as “Always accept yourself” or “Always be flexible.” These promoters are great for pushing you into the loops but generally not very good at getting you out of them. They’re like koan masters who bedevil you with paradoxes you have to crawl your way out of by yourself.
Indeed, some of the best psychology books these days have this effect. Take the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. On the surface, it makes a contrarian argument: “Though you’ve been told all your life to be more rational, the truth is that your gut instincts guide you better.” When you read it, though, you find that it really entangles you in the dilemma about when to trust your gut and when to think more thoroughly. It makes suggestions for how to distinguish between good gut and bad gut instinct, suggestions that force you to get over the dumb question about whether your gut is always right or always wrong. And, in the meantime, it steeps you in a wonderful exploration of the nature of gut instinct. A similar strategy is employed by Steven Johnson’s new, aptly titled book Everything Bad Is Good for You.
Learning from history, you’re not forced to repeat it. Rather, repeating it becomes more of an option. As a rule, therefore, it’s useful to notice your loops. I’ve started to inventory mine when I get a glimpse of them. I diagram them as flow charts, though I call them clog charts. I don’t assume that if I’m in a loop, it’s necessarily bad or good. Rather than assuming I evaluate its uses. I recognize that even the futile loops can be useful places to visit before upleveling out of them.
Given that many loops arise in relationships I think its useful for organizations and partnerships to investigate their loops. Groups can familiarize themselves with their loops by playing a variation of the game hot potato in which, going around in a circle repeatedly, each member gives voice to one of the stations in the infinite loop:
“We need more customers.”
“To get more customers we need to polish up our offering first.”
“We can’t afford to polish up our offering because we’re not generating enough income.”
“That’s right, we need more customers.”
I also study the natural history of such loops. They go way back. Living systems have always relied on them, and an important argument these days is that life actually originates with some loops called autocatalytic sets and combinations of loops proposed by my colleague, Terry Deacon, called Auto-cells. I study the loops in intellectual history, too, cycles of philosophical thought revealing how minds address life’s fundamental dilemmas. Some of these philosophical loops seem to generate insight with each cycle, and some seem more like fashion, as thinkers make rediscoveries without recognizing that, yes, we have thought all of that through before, thank you — thoughts that, like bell-bottoms, seem all fresh and new even though we’ve been there, done that.