Learning from Ants

Eldon Taylor (Dec 15, 2009, InnerTalk InTouch, The Least Among Them) describes how ants have provided insights into life, from the time he was a boy. I can relate.

Years ago when I was but a mere 8 or 9 years old, I spent several consecutive days burning ants in my back yard. It is embarrassing to think about it now, but at the time I missed the meaning of what I was doing. I would dig up large anthills, and we had many, shoot some lighter fluid on the area and light a rolled sheet of wax paper that I used like a torch to spread the flames. Sometimes I would place small milk cartons on the hills and pretend they were houses going up in flames.

I had friends who did similar things to pass the summer days away so somehow I didn't think of what I was doing in any light other than normal and "so what?" Then one night I had a dream. In the dream the ant leaders came to speak with me. They were very courteous and formal, like grown ups, and they showed me the devastation I was bringing to their families and their young. I had wrecked their homes and tortured family members and they had dragged back to their graveyards the burnt and twisted remains of brothers and sisters. They also showed me around their homes as they were before I had started my fires and digging, sticking, drowning and otherwise tormenting these creatures. In the days before my boredom executed this pastime, the ants lived in harmony. They worked together to build, store and foster good works to create a strong future for their young and unborn. Their strength, courage and work ethic were most impressive even to a small child like myself.

I awoke from the dream frightened and nauseous. I felt terrible for what I had done. I never burnt another anthill or ant. I threw this afternoon pastime away for good and in time thought very little about ants. Although in twenty-twenty hindsight I can see that my learning should have transferred from ants to all animals, it didn't work quite that way for me. It did work well enough for me to refuse to take biology in High School because I objected to cutting up frogs, but by the time I entered adulthood most of the message had seriously dimmed.

Then one day, while riding in a limo to the airport in Tampa Bay, the driver and I had a conversation. It started with the nature of spirituality and the distinction between spirituality and religion.

After some "lofty and elegant" philosophies the driver looked at me and said, "You know what? I believe in prayer." He then went on to explain why. It was the ants again–ants that he had seen in a nature show on television. Ants that he said buried their dead and prayed. I left him at the airport and thanked him for the insight. "If ants pray," he said in parting, "then there must be a reason that goes beyond what we know."

As soon as I returned home I checked. Sure enough, ants lived up to my dream in real life. I pulled a quick article off the web from Encyclopedia Bugtannica and it began with, "They plant gardens, herd and milk bugs such as aphids, raise armies for battles, take slaves, and even bury their dead in ant cemeteries." The article just titled, "Ants" went on to speak of the loyalty, efficiency, diligence, sacrifice and teamwork that ants share." I thought of the many times on approach to landing that I had looked out the aircraft window, down on the anthills of man. Tiny vehicles traveling along skinny roadways, small houses and other buildings crowded together, itsy bitsy people and even more miniscule animals likes dogs carrying out their day–all just like ants; busy, busy little ants with no apparent purpose to the observer passing by from this altitude. And yet, when you live down there instead of in the plane, you learn the purpose, the dreams, the goals and ambitions and more. I wonder, what more would I learn if I lived with the ants?

How foolish it is for us so-called enlightened human beings to think that we are the only intelligent moral creatures on this planet. How on earth will we ever come to understand ourselves if we overlook the world that we live in? Just where is the divide between knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world we participate in? How could a single ant gain personal insight without standing back and witnessing the whole of the ant world? It is all too easy to just be so busy that we fail to take stock of the everyday everything that surrounds us–or is it just me? Do you notice the lives of all the creatures large and small that dwell with and near you? Do they matter? Do you think there is a lesson from the ants to all of us and if so what? What does it all mean anyway?