When Humpty Dumpty jumps off the wall

There are two main ways to speak truth, one is through stories; the other is through studies. But because people don’t care about what you know, until they know that you care, some truths are so important, so profound, that they can only be expressed in nursery rhymes. For example the truth about individual, community and institutional capacity to address loneliness is found in the best known nursery rhyme in the English speaking world. It’s four lines long; it tells us most of what we need to know about inclusion and intimates the rest:

humpty_dumptyHumpty 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 Dumpty together again.

Humpty Dumpty was most certainly written as a riddle, as well as a nursery rhyme. One obvious answer to the riddle is: ‘an egg’, the symbol of fertility, creation and vulnerability. Within any eggshell there is all that is needed for a full and active life – pure potential just waiting to be hatched, nurtured and connected. For Humpty Dumpty that potential was never realised.

However, I believe there is a more oblique answer to the riddle – ‘a client of the King’s services’.

Humpty Dumpty strikes me as an indecisive character, sitting on the wall, (read as fence), equivocating about what to do next. I imagine ‘part of him’ (irony intended) knows that if he’s ever going to realise/release his potential he’s got to take the plunge; he can’t just sit on the fence for ever, but life is tough on the margins, the wall is high; he’s alone…some might say he’s hard to reach.

He also apparently believes that the only way his life will be made better is if an expert, (I resisted the temptation to say ‘eggspert’ – oh, seems I didn’t) comes into his life to fix him. Hence the side of the wall where all the King’s horses and all the King’s men went about their business seemed to Humpty to be the more attractive option were he to fall. That is the side of the wall that exacts the same gravitational pull that drew Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin man along the yellow brick road towards the Wizard of Oz and the Emerald city.

So you see, falling was not in fact Humpty’s main problem, it was the side of the wall he fell. He landed on the systems side, represented by ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men’, who duly did what they always do with broken eggs – a needs analysis. They looked to see just how broken he was and concluded he was indeed very, very broken. They had technical terms to describe his specific type of brokenness and unlike Humpty they had been on many training courses to help them understand what the words meant. Some who were not so well trained muttered that he was just ‘completely cracked’.

After several consultations with each other they concluded that Humpty needed to be put back together again. After all, hadn’t they dealt with a lot a fallen egg over the years and hadn’t every needs analysis so far come to the same conclusion? “What a fallen, broken egg needs is the services of all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.” So they set to work prodding and poking and the horses tried picking up pieces of shell with their hooves. But Humpty was beyond ‘help’ and they failed to put him back together again. Another good egg lost to world, despite all their heroic attempts to save him.

What every child knows, however, is that the King’s men and the King’s horses are often busy elsewhere protecting the King’s land and piecing together an eggshell takes a lot of care and a long time. Fact is, all of the King’s horses and all the King’s men have seldom managed to put an egg completely back together all on their own.

From time to time the King worried about the failure of his men and his horses to mend broken eggs and asked his high officials to find out why this was happening. Their inquiry found no fault with the performance of the King’s men and the King’s horses, blaming instead – ‘systems failure’.

They wrote long reports with lists of problems for the King to sit up at night and read:

  1. To put an egg back together again that egg must accept it has a problem; that it is broken and must be willing to receive ‘professional help’, most are instinctively distrustful of such interventions and so resist them. But evidence from other kingdoms suggests after a few generations of helping such resistance will dissipate, and accordingly outcomes will improve;
  2. Some eggs are apathetic and don’t care about anyone, including themselves. They know they have problems, cause problems, and are problems, but will not play their part in ‘co-producing’ a solution to their brokenness – they don’t want to be a part of a ‘great recovery’.
  3. Many eggs go into denial, refusing to accept the reality of the situation, or the validity of the diagnosis that the King’s men have made. Some even have the temerity to suggest that they are not fundamentally broken at all, but that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, in an effort to be helpful, had caused them to crack even further. They are so delusional as to claim that if they had been left alone they’d be better off.


Some of the reports included small sections on how the King’s horses and King’s men might help to prevent eggs falling and cracking in the first place. But, to do so they would need to spend time on the other side of the wall, which everyone knew was a very different place altogether and presented them with many challenges.

Now let us pretend that Humpty Dumpty had decided instead to see himself as a citizen and not as a client. If so, as he fell, he might have chosen to take his chances on the other side of the wall.

What do you think life is like on the other side of the wall that Humpty had sat on for so long?

I’d like to suggest that it’s the opposite of the ‘systems/institutional way’, namely the ‘community way’. So what would this community way look and feel like?

Imagine at the bottom of the wall, on the opposite side, a comfy nest made up of contributions from a community of connected and caring people, organised to create the conditions for eggs to land, hatch and grow.

When the nest is in place the issue is no longer about an individual egg or its brokenness, but about how to keep everyone connected and ready to play their part in making life good for everything and everybody. It’s not about brokenness but the hatching of potential. On this side of the wall folks are not concerned with fixing broken eggs after they fall, or about what to label them when they do, but how eggs and all else, with all their strengths and fragility’s, can hatch, and what they can each do to make it happen more.

And what materials make the best community nests?

  • the contributions of local residents
  • the power of local associations
  • the resources of public, private and non-profit institutions
  • the physical and economic resources of local places
  • the stories of our lives and of our evolving community as the place where citizens and eggs can prevail

Only people living in communities can build these nests, can lead others in the community building. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men can help by throwing over the wall at least some of the resources that they are currently using up trying to put Humpty and his friends back together again. They can actively choose to do no harm and lead by stepping back, becoming facilitators rather than service providers; though first they could gift Humpty with some personal gold from the King’s coffers to resource him to determine and commission for himself his own good life. But that would be the stuff of nursery rhymes and fairytales… right??

Cormac Russell

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