Most of us are familiar with this nursery rhyme and, like many things that are part of everyday culture, its origins and meanings are variously ascribed.
What always struck me about it, even when I was young, was how tragic and hopeless it all seemed. Nothing, not all the resources of a king, could fix poor Humpty. Many children’s rhymes and stories do contain difficult narratives and warnings. Think of the potential fate of Hansel and Gretel and how gruesome and disturbing that tale is.
Humpty Dumpty’s pithy story seems to stand for those experiences that are truly life altering; those awful tragedies that befall people, sometimes coming from nowhere and utterly beyond personal control.
Children seem, more than adults, to accept that life can suddenly go topsy turvy and unrecognisable. Perhaps the reduced control they have over their own lives makes them more familiar with loss of personal agency.
Humpty Dumpty reminds us that bad things happen but would the rhyme have a different impact if we thought that Humpty felt he complicit in his fall from the wall? What if he knew he might fall but ignored the warning?
I raise this because aspects of psychological trauma can ensue when we feel we are agents in our own tragedy, rather than when we see ourselves as victims.
Lois (not her real name), had a truly Humpty Dumpty year a couple of years ago. She lost her job; took another one hurriedly that was awful; her boyfriend left her just after they had moved in together; she then had to give up the flat, losing her deposit in the process, and moved home to spend lockdown with her parents who were feeling worried and miserable about their own circumstances.
A series of most unfortunate events which left her frightened, bewildered and angry. Yet, initially anyway, the person she was most upset with was herself. Why had she taken that job when she knew it wasn’t right (she was frightened and needed money)? Why had she not read the signs that indicated her boyfriend didn’t really want to live as an adult (he chose to go back to his parents’ home and sit in front of the telly). She had desperately wanted to believe that his tell-tale ambivalence would improve because the alternative- failing at a relationship which she had found hard to secure- was too unpalatable.
Haven’t we all been there? Our fears lock us into a plan of action that we know has shortcomings and then we berate ourselves afterwards for being afraid in the first place! It can be easier to give ourselves a hard time for a bruising fall than sympathise with the frightened part of ourselves that couldn’t face a difficult truth.
So, one of the reasons why painful experiences continue to needle us is that our ego can refuse to let go of judgement, won’t forgive and move on. Lois judged herself far more harshly at first than she did her boyfriend or the workplace.
The aim in therapy was not for her to have a rant about them per se, but it was to more fairly apportion responsibility so that she could then focus on her relationship with herself and the reasons why she couldn’t listen to her inner voice that warned her of the potential falls.
Lois is still putting some of the pieces back together and realises that some need to be discarded, some amended, and some cherished. It is a large undertaking when you are in your mid-twenties but she does know that she would rather take a tumble now when her bones won’t all break than risk one when she is older and her life is more complicated. And, unlike for poor Humpty, much can be mended and then strengthened if we put the effort in.