The Accident that could just be a Decipherable Hint


In the 80s, the Guardian used to run a regular column, “Body and Soul”. One of the regular contributors was the psychotherapist, Peter Tatham. He took everyday things or events and gave them a psychodynamic interpretation. This is what he said about “accidents”.

John Whitwell


Are accidents accidental? While writing to the friend who suggested this topic, I remembered the occasion when I accidentally hammered my right index finger so hard that is stopped me from the guitar playing I enjoyed. The nail still grows less strongly than the others. Less than two hours after this recollection, I cut the same finger deep enough to need six stitches. Joint, tendon, nerves and arteries were spared, but typing proved impossible. I was prevented from a whole day of “serious” writing.

An accident is merely a thing which befalls, an event: the notion of misfortune, or danger, being an additional meaning. We believe accidental happenings to be just chance, yet if an accident is co-incidence, then things must befall together in time or space. The event coincides with the person and his or her circumstances at the time. A symptom (Greek rather than Latin derivation), is similarly the falling together of things by chance: a mischance, we assume.

We have all, I suspect, experienced amazing coincidences in our lives, to marvel at, and not make anything more of. But what if they were not just symptomatic (accidental) but symbolic instead? For a symbolon means two things which are thrown together, because they belonged together. In this view, there is no chance, for it has given way to a sense of purpose. The accident happened with intent, and has a meaningful connection with the person to whom it happened. One did not cause the other to occur, nor did I cut my finger on purpose. But their concurrence points to a symbolic value in the life of the victim, which it would be worth his while finding out. Symptoms don’t just happen, by mishap; but carry a meaning to be discovered.

If I “lose” the telephone number of a person I don’t wish to contact, the message of my action is plain. If I leave my lecture notes at home, a certainambivalence to lecturing is also obvious. But what of dreaming the winner of a horse race and then drawing it in two sweep-stakes; thinking of a long absent friend to bump into him in the street on the same day; or abusing your index finger twice? Meanings can certainly be hard to tease out, because they are often ones we do not wish to know – or they would not have had to be brought to our attention so forcefully. They are particular to the time and place and the person concerned. And, in addition, there may often be more than one possible meaning – often contradictory. Thus, the lecturer may indeed bemanxious about his performance and only able to express it in this way; but, on the other hand maybe the accident also tells him to throw away his typescript and try speaking from memory and heart.

Science tells us that such things are not true, because they are unprovable. But all that means is that science does not yet possess a suitable model to explain happenstance. We are learning more clearly these days that the scientific is but one of a number of ways of explaining reality.

The wish for an incontrovertible proof for “meaningful chance” is therefore something which may also sometimes be set aside – though we should not stop searching for it. Persons in the street know very well that coincidences happen and probably assume a magic-like explanation. Try telling them that their experience is not valid because science cannot prove how it works!

But we need to go further than just marvelling at the magic. To take full advantage of these chance events we must seek out the messages they offer. We can make more of the accidents (symptoms) in our lives if we view them from several perspectives: one of which will be that they are trivial and meaningless. For example, I gashed my finger because the glass I was washing was already cracked and should have been thrown away. But the accident could have also been telling me not to spend the whole weekend writing but to take a rest and be with my family. It also suggests other, more personal, meanings which I will not share. And it may have been telling me to write in long-hand (I am left-handed) more slowly and reflectively, rather than dashing it all off into, as one of my daughters calls it, “the word presser” – which has now broken down, anyway!

Yes, accidents are good for thinking with.

Peter Tatham