View From the Ant Hill. Lessons From Some Six-legged Friends
My childhood could be described as a series of obsessive fascinations. I was always in love with and enchanted by something. Sometimes these episodes would last a few weeks and sometimes much longer. A recent walk through the woods took me back to my “ant period.” I remember staring endlessly at ant hills, marveling at the constant flow of activity. Ants moved- back and forth, to and from the hill, always following a clear pheromone delineated path, carrying food and who-knows-what-all back and forth. The ants were indefatigable. They worked, and worked, and worked. If I stepped on an ant hill or knocked one over, there was such an immediate and impressive response. Uncountably many ants burst onto the scene apparently assessing damage and beginning repairs. They were quite an outfit.
At first, I was most taken by their amazing industry. Later it dawned on me that the well-oiled machine of the anthill required that individual ants place the needs of the community above needs of self. This seemed to be a quality that they all shared, something hardwired into antness. How very different from us. Human beings seem to be inescapably embroiled in constant negotiation between two opposing forces. One is the vision of achievement, the idea of what can be achieved, the thing that makes art, music, a building, or maybe just a well-organized sock drawer. The other is the siren call of a force that’s more difficult to describe. It’s something like a constant longing to be comfortably enfolded in the arms of a loving mother pressed against her warm body. It’s the stuff that makes it hard for us to get out of bed in the morning, to get moving, to expend effort, the thing that makes an easy chair so attractive.
Living in a privileged world, in a wealthy nation, surrounded by elaborate and remarkably capable technologies makes the enfolded baby bliss pretty easy to achieve. Worker ants have organized things in such a way that we can make coffee with little effort and sit and drink it while we’re entertained and stimulated by all kinds of colorful inviting screens. The acquisition of delicious food and warm comfortable clothing is just a click away. The baby bliss state doesn’t require personal sacrifice. After all, we are the important thing, and the world seems to be deliberately organized to keep us pleasured and comfortable.
The vision of achievement, however, sings a more difficult song. Effort is required and often the very best achievements can’t happen without personal sacrifice. Weirdly, human beings seem to regard effort as difficult and painful, unlike ants. We seem to want to avoid it as much as we can. In fact, the sterling achievement of our wonderful civilization seems to be that it’s organized in such a way that we just don’t have to work as hard as ants or our forebears. So when the vision of achievement arises within us, we’re confronted with a problem. We can’t have it without expending effort. We have to put something else above ourselves. We have to, at least temporarily, abandon baby bliss and embrace sacrifice for a greater good. To make matters worse, our paths are not laid out for us by pheromones. We have to hack through the brush and make them for ourselves. We do it, though, and for good reason. The vision of achievement includes things of unspeakable beauty, all that is good in the world of human creation, art, music, dance, architecture, and the list goes on and on. So we more or less gladly engage in the negotiation between the two opposing forces and move toward some kind of compromise, a balance between the vision of achievement and baby bliss.
It is with this view from the ant hill that I approach our annual giving drive. Parting with hard-earned money requires real sacrifice. It means choosing a greater good, in this case our congregation and our movement toward beloved community. UU Asheville itself is a thing of real beauty, the achievement of many people repeatedly making the negotiation between the vision of achievement and baby bliss in favor of a better world. Our physical facilities, staff, Sunday services, groups, activities, and our wonderful community make for one very fine anthill. It’s true that Covid stepped on us a bit, but we’ve come out scurrying around and getting things put back together. Thank you all for making the choice to put those simple comforts aside to keep us going.
Cliff Hall, UU Asheville Board of Trustees