The other morning while my thumb was poised to do yet another frustrated counter squish, a phrase popped into my head out of the blue; “Know thy enemy.” It’s from General Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I decided to take his advice and do some research and soon found my dislike of ants giving way to a curious respect for the philosophy they live by.
I’ve since become convinced that if we could embrace some of the ideologies that these tiny creatures are humbly living every day (when they’re not being squished by intolerant people like me), we would find ourselves learning to be a more efficient and cooperative society. And one that does less harm to its natural environment. These little critters have a thing or two to teach us if we only pay attention.
All for one and one for all
To start with, everybody in the ant world is important. Each ant specializes in a certain task within the colony whether it be guarding the queen, foraging for food, or removing the waste. Yet, the ants operate as one seamless organism. This is a great example of individuality being essential to the overall function of a society and yet it does not usurp it. One could call this perfect social balance.
No rules, no boss
According to Deborah Gordon, an ecologist with Stanford University, the ant colony has a decentralized structure. There are no set rules and no-one gives the orders. There is a queen but only in the sense that she lays eggs and is the nurturer of the colony. She gives no commands. Can you imagine existing in a society where no -one has to run the show because the respect for each other working towards a common goal is enough to make it work?
Ant wisdom to remember every day
Here’s how we can live like amazing ant-dividuals as we march along throughout our day.
1. Don’t ever give up.
Have you noticed that when an obstacle is put in front of an ant, say a rock or a deep crater, they do not sit down and dissolve into a session of self-pity? When circumstances block their path, they simply keep going.
Today I watched a small ant take hold of a dead sow bug three times its size and begin to drag it towards the nest. A stick lying in the dirt was a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but the ant was not giving up. Its little hind legs were kicking up the fine dirt trying to get better traction. The ant went off for a minute or two, then came back to try again, and eventually got that bug over the stick and into the nest, a triumph of persistence!
Whether they take a route around or over that obstacle, they just keep moving tirelessly toward their goal. They do not give up. Ever. Can we learn to be this devoted to our purpose and to give it our best at all times?
2. If the load is too heavy, ask for help.
Think about it, have you ever seen an ant fruitlessly tugging on something that it cannot move? There is no evidence to support that ants overdo it and put out their backs or suffer from emotional exhaustion. Ants know their limits.
Ants do not take on tasks that they cannot handle. If a load is too big to handle alone, the lone ant signals to the others that it needs help. Sometimes it takes a lot of ants to move that bread crust.
Why don’t we do more of this? I’ve tugged on many heavy loads in my life, believing that it was somehow valiant to do it on my own, being either too embarrassed, proud, or scared to simply ask for someone to share the load. Can you relate?
It also feels so good to offer help when someone else is struggling. Whether it be a physical load like bringing in the groceries, or an emotional one like listening whole-heartedly to your spouse even though you‘ve had a long day too; it can be such a graceful act of sharing that makes the whole journey of being human so much easier.
3. Ants without a load make way for ants laden with a burden.
This is how ants practice efficiency. They don’t get in the way of those with heavier burdens. If they are unencumbered at the moment, they give the space to those that need it, making it easier for the path to be utilized. There could be many ways to incorporate this kind of thinking into our lives. Maybe we can make way for others to work out issues the way they need to and not get in their way by over-helping, or making the load heavier by heaping our judgments on their process.
Remember things change. Sometimes we are the ones carrying the burden, sometimes we are the ones travelling light. We all get the chance to play both roles in the ebb and flow of our daily lives.
And for the more practical side of life...
4. Ants think summer in winter, and winter in summer.
Remember the Aesop’s fable The Grasshopper and the Ant? Ants know there are seasons and are not fooled into thinking the present situation is permanent. They are collecting and building throughout the summer when they have abundance and the liberty to do their work even though they might not need the benefits at that particular moment. These are not short-sighted creatures. (And if the fable is to be believed, the same can’t be said for grasshoppers!)
If you have a wood-burning heater, you will know why they do this. You collect the wood in the summer and let it dry. You split and stack it months ahead so when the cold days of winter come, the wood is ready to build a fire for warmth. If you wait until you’re cold to start collecting wood, you just may freeze.
This analogy has parallels in our modern lives. Are we living reactively to the steady onslaught of life’s events, or can we maintain a proactive focus on our life’s goals? At best, it’s a balancing act, living for the moment (be here now) while holding true to the course we set for our future. The ants have mastered this balance, and in so doing may be the most successful species on the planet.
5. Ants don’t waste their energy.
New foragers do not go out to hunt for food unless they receive a certain number of positive interactions from returning foragers. The system is set to go unless interactions turn it negative. In conjunction with that ideology, the system is set to stop unless interactions make it positive. In other words, they go with the flow. Imagine the energy we could save if we just paid attention to what our environment is telling us is working or not working? Imagine if we didn’t try to force our will on something that is clearly not working?
6. Ants share clustered resources.
When ants find a clustered resource (such as your picnic lunch), they don‘t hoard the feast all to themselves. If a scout ant discovers a food resource which provides more than an individual serving, he quickly leaves a trail of pheromones to help the other ants find the shortest path to it thus saving them time to reach it. Generosity and cooperation feed the nest. Hoarding is not practiced by ants. Contrast this with humanity’s income disparity, our own sad legacy.
We're all in this together
If an ant loses it’s way back to the nest, it does not live long. Like ourselves, the ant is a highly socialized creature that depends on its place within the whole. We need each other and this earth that we walk upon. So please don’t tug on that bread crust alone. And don’t watch someone else do it either. Let’s be like the ants and make reciprocity and a strong sense of community the new norm. I still don’t know what to do about the ants in my kitchen but at least I can be reminded about generosity and selfless devotion to a cause bigger than me. Even if there’s critters stuck in my honey.