The last several months have been an involuntary science experiment of sorts at our home. I’ve been dealing with an aggressive ant infestation and have observed thousands of these prehistoric creatures in my own habitat. I’ve seen them walking through my kitchen, in the bathroom and on a few occasions we’ve rendezvoused in the bedroom. At first I was annoyed, then intrigued, then enraged after too many failed eviction attempts.
During one of many killing sprees with the shop-vac I paused, turned off the vacuum and began staring at a long, wide row of ants making their way from the back door to my pantry. I was taken by their determination and discipline. I couldn’t help but admire how thousands of them work as one body on a mission, gathering food to support the colony. Peacefully foraging whatever was left out for them to eat whether it was a crumb on the counter, a dirty plate in the sink or scraps in the trash. As much as I despised them, I admired how efficiently they worked until every last morsel was gone. They are one of natures best recycling systems leaving no grain of food behind. I actually started to feel bad for killing these guys. I couldn’t blame them for coming into my house, after all they were just doing what they were created to do, and they were doing it well.
Watching them made me feel lazy and lackadaisical by comparison. There are no stragglers or lazy ants in the group. If the focus and drive of any single ant were transplanted into one of us we would excel, never distracted by life’s diversions, focusing only on our immediate goal until we achieved it or die trying. Watching their march made me reflect on the sad state of our own existence and how far we were from this idea of working together for the collective good. The marching ants are always moving forward, not a single ant stops for a break or a chat with a friend, never sneaking away for some selfish distraction. The power of discipline and selflessness was glaring at me through their tiny examples, reminding me how different our world could be if we followed their lead. Species survival tends to favor those who work together for the collective good and our species is so far from that. They existed for millions of years before us and I’d expect them to outlast us for millions more.
Nature always provides lessons for those who choose to see them. My ant-ventures came at a time when the world seemed pretty hopeless and dark. Seeing the death and atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and West Africa, I need to focus on something positive. These little visitors are to me a welcome example of how cooperation and selflessness can change our condition. They showed me that we have a choice to either act together to preserve life and improve our existence or we continue to fight and kill one another as if death and suffering were a competition where ISIS, Assad and the IDF all strive for Olympic gold.
In light of humanity’s long and prolific history of oppression, colonization and exploitation we might consider a change in strategy. If we do what we’ve always done then we should expect what we’ve always gotten. Perhaps we can take a page from a different playbook and try following an example that has worked for tens of millions of years for our more successful tiny cohabitants. What might the world look like if we try cooperation instead of competition? If preserving life was always prioritized over extinguishing it. If we treated everyone as equal instead of as “other”.
In my limited scientific observations I’d say that the ant creed is best summarized by this universal spiritual truth of reciprocity, do unto others as you would do to yourself. Ants submit to their instincts and live exactly as they were programmed to live, to be selfless and support the greater good. Whether you believe in evolution, God, mother nature or all the above, everything has a natural instinct that drives it from within. Our instinct is to be good to one another and to treat others as we like to be treated but we routinely defy that instinct and treat others like trash. We know it to be wrong because we experience guilt, or some of us do, yet we still treat people with arrogance, selfishness and disrespect.
A few years ago I read about an anthropologist in Africa who put out a basket of fruit and told a group of children that whoever got there first can keep all of the fruit. Instead of racing each other the kids from this tribe took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treat. When asked about their strategy they responded by asking how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad? The tribe’s language included a word we do not have, “ubuntu” meaning “I am because we are.” Like ants, there are still communities like these who value group welfare over individual gain. While these enlightened few are often discounted as hippies or communists, their example is much closer to our human nature and divine order than most “civilized” societies today.
My ant visitors live a life without luxury or glamor but they have a purpose and focus that many of us may never experience. The ants’ reward is not wealth or power. Their reward is collective success, making up 25% of the animal biomass in some parts of the world. They will most likely continue to grow and thrive because they work together, selflessly, each of them living simply so that they can all simply live. One day I hope we follow in their tiny footsteps.