Life lessons come to us from many different sources – including nursery rhymes.
Such rhymes (some made up by my parents, most derived from the usual sources, like Mother Goose) nurtured me as child. And one rhyme in particular has stayed with me all my life, a story of risk and failure – a lesson in how to respond when the worst happens, when things go to pieces and little or no hope remains in sight.
I’m talking about the story of Humpty Dumpty, the anthropomorphic egg that tried to defy the odds and met with tragic results: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,/Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
On the surface, this might seem a story about dismal failure. I disagree. The key word, to me, occurs last: again. To me, anyway, it positions Humpty as a risk-taker – bold, fearless, unrelenting.
Humpty, I think, believed in setting stretch goals and knew well the potential for failure, but he refused to let it define him. Because of that, I see Humpty as the epitome of courage. Perched atop that wall, he almost surely had to deal with fear, knowing the stakes of his position to be high indeed – that he might fall. But this egg never let the fear of turning into an omelet define him.
How does Humpty’s tale (which dates from 1797 or before) relate to today’s world? Well, Humpty’s wall can serve as a simple metaphor for all the lofty aspirations we have – in life, marriage, business and other pursuits. Occupying a wall like Humpty’s involves vulnerability and much humility – because at any time, gravity might scramble everything.
Unfortunately, none of us is perfect. At times, we misjudge and overreach. Sometimes, in fact, overconfidence untempered with humility leads us to the brink of disaster.
Now, we’ve all faced great challenges, whether the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of an incurable ailment or some other calamity – leading to an unfortunate “fall” and accompanying fear, hopelessness and helplessness.
At such times, I believe it helpful to turn to Humpty’s story. Yes, you may have fallen and, like Humpty, your life may appear to be shattered. But unlike Humpty, you can persevere when all hope seems lost. You can accept the reality that when you fall, the fall itself becomes part of the process of finding courage.
In that regard, it seems integral to cultivate a support group better than Humpty’s “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” – family and friends to help when everything seems scrambled. We’ve all occupied high walls and fallen many times, but if it weren’t for our own “king’s horses” and “king’s men,” righting our lives would have been improbable if not impossible. Family and friends give us the confidence and endurance to keep on keeping on.
When you fall from your own wall, strive to overcome such a turn and seek a new way forward. Find the resolve to put yourself back together again, unlike Humpty, and someday, just maybe, someone will write a rhyme about you.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is assistant chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former president of Westminster College and served as dean at the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University. He has a Ph.D. in economics.