There was an old lady who swallowed a cow….
to catch the dog….to catch the cat….to catch the bird….to catch the spider.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly….perhaps she’ll die.
— A 1940’s American Folk Tale
I’m betting most of you have encountered this folk tale before. It’s funny, vivid, and memorable because what we carry around — inside — changes and influences us.
The little old lady who swallowed a fly at the beginning is not the same one we discover at the end. Her behavior maybe consistent (and very odd … forever swallowing some animal), but she becomes qualitatively different with every step. More and more must be taken into account as the sum total of her “swallowing” expands and grows with each new assimilation.
Russian Dolls are fascinating for a similar reason. They vividly illustrate the concept of nesting — a smaller doll is nested and enveloped within a larger one. And by illustrating how each doll becomes nested we visualize a form of sequential development. We unpack the sequence and see how each of the various pieces fit together to make the more complicated whole; part becomes whole which then becomes a part, over and over.
And one reason why we enjoy this metaphoric part-to-whole progression is that the progression can go backwards as well as forwards. Not just back to a time when we were smaller and less complicated — but also back to a time when we were qualitatively different; less encumbered and more direct.
Or, so it might seem.
Here’s another image*.
John Nesbitt in his book, Mind Set! Eleven Ways to Change the Way You See – And Create –The Future, uses this image to illustrate his idea of a “mind set.” According to Nesbitt, a mind set is the way receive information; it is the way we filter information according to what is useful and valuable to us. The boa constrictor (while digesting the elephant) is “filtering” the elephant. Whatever is being processed and digested from the inside influences and changes a person on the outside. So, to some degree, we are pre-determined by the experiences which shape the “contour” of our perception. Not without flexibility, mind you… but that flexibility seems determined – first by having digested and assimilated the contour of our most recent experience, and then by allowing that experience to shape whatever attracts us to the discovery of our very next experience. Until we make room for both, the contour of our most recent experience often limits and controls us.
So that little old lady who swallowed a fly…
swallowed the cow to resolve the dog, and then
swallowed the cat to resolve the bird, and then
swallowed the bird to resolves the spider… who wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her… (I love that part)
I know it’s pushing the point, but how well we integrate our experience can offer flexibility only when our next intention gives us the freedom to make different choices… Our very next intention cannot be dictated solely by our very last experience.
Unfortunately, the little old lady didn’t get the memo on that.
She swallowed a horse… and died of course.
Kinda funny right?… it all began with an unexplainable attraction to a fly. And I’m wondering if — just maybe — that first attraction might have had something to do with an unconscious desire for freedom… a freedom she saw captured in that fly… OK, that’s too much analysis.
Thanks for listening!
*Image credit: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.