The Old Woman, the Pig, Chain-Anxieties and racing thoughts

When I was young, I loved Chain-Stories like “The Old Woman and Her Pig“.   The protagonist has a goal which leads to a conflict, an obstacle

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An old woman was sweeping her house, and she found a little crooked sixpence. “What,” said she, “shall I do with this little sixpence? I will go to market, and buy a little pig.”

As she was coming home, she came to a stile. But the piggy wouldn’t go over the stile.

Attempts to solve the first problem only lead to a second problem:

She went a little further, and she met a dog. So she said to him, “Dog! Dog! Bite pig. Piggy won’t go over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the dog wouldn’t.

Soon the problems have piled up, one after another  after the another:

She went a little further, and she met a stick. So she said, “Stick! Stick! Beat dog! Dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the stick wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a fire. So she said, “Fire! Fire! Burn stick. Stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the fire wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met some water. So she said, “Water! Water! Quench fire. Fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the water wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met an ox. So she said, “Ox! Ox! Drink water. Water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the ox wouldn’t. She went a little further and she met a butcher. So she said, “Butcher! Butcher! Kill ox. Ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the butcher wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rope. So she said, “Rope! Rope! Hang butcher. Butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the rope wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rat. So she said, “Rat! Rat! Gnaw rope. Rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the rat wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a cat. So she said, “Cat! Cat! Kill rat. Rat won’t gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.”

But the cat said to her, “If you will go to yonder cow, and fetch me a saucer of milk, I will kill the rat.” So away went the old woman to the cow.

Racing thoughts can be like that.   One obstacle or anxiety leads to a whole chain of problems and anxieties.  Sometimes these lead to paralysis – a giant Gordian Knot with no clear loose ends, no where to begin.

It’s easy to give into despair and paralysis in these moments.     And no-win scenarios do exist.

But sometimes, there are elegant solutions that resolve problems that felt  completely unsolvable:

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But the cow said to her, “If you will go to yonder haystack, and fetch me a handful of hay, I’ll give you the milk.” So away went the old woman to the hay-stack; and she brought the hay to the cow.

As soon as the cow had eaten the hay, she gave the old woman the milk; and away she went with it in a saucer to the cat.

As soon as the cat had lapped up the milk, the cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope; the rope began to hang the butcher; the butcher began to kill the ox; the ox began to drink the water; the water began to quench the fire; the fire began to burn the stick; the stick began to beat the dog; the dog began to bite the pig; the little pig in a fright jumped over the stile; and so the old woman got home that night.

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